"Do not be afraid…for I will make you into a great nation there." (Gen. 46:3)

In order to understand the whole concept of exile, I must preface by quoting a tradition we have in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues. (recorded in Likutei Torah, Miketz)

The purpose of the various exiles is to isolate elements of holiness which are scattered….

The purpose of the various exiles is to isolate elements of holiness which are scattered within various branches of the kelipa, the "peel" surrounding the kernel which is all sanctity. Inasmuch as Egypt was full of abominations [manifestations of such kelipa] and impurity had its "headquarters" in that country, it was no more than natural that many such segments of sanctity were scattered throughout that country. In fact, the amounts of such scattered segments of sanctity are usually proportionate to the amount of impurity and defilement that abound in a certain area or environment.

This phenomenon originated as soon as Adam sinned. It has been Israel's task to "rescue" all those splinters of sanctity and to make them part of a whole. Our sages have said that the nation that left Egypt and experienced the revelation at Mount Sinai was previously captive within this kelipa called Egypt. (Likutei Torah on parashat Vayeshev) It is to such a nation that Moses said, "Who is a great nation possessing such righteous statutes, etc." (Deut. 4:8)

G‑d told Jacob that the purpose of Israel spending time in exile in Egypt was to enable it to develop into this great nation. "The great nation" [all the fragments of holiness] at that time was "lost" amongst all the Egyptians, and it had to be isolated and then led out from there. Unless Jacob descended to Egypt at this time, there would be no hope of accomplishing this. It was because Jacob represented holiness in a powerful and concentrated form, that he could become the "magnet" which would attract the various scattered segments of sanctity that still abounded in Egypt in an ineffectual form.

This is the meaning of the statement in Bereshit Rabba (79:1) that Jacob did not depart from this world until he had seen 600,000 descendants. These 600,000 were the ones who endured persecution there and were ultimately refined in what our sages call the "iron crucible", which welded the Jewish people into a nation and enabled them to leave Egypt after having been refined.

[Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of "Ohr HaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar" by Eliyahu Munk.]