Gemara: Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It would have been fit for Yaakov Avinu to have been brought down to Egypt in chains of iron. It was just his merit that caused that [he did not], as the pasuk says: "With ropes of a person (Rashi – because of My affection for the person, I brought him with ropes and not chains), with bonds of love; I will be for them like one who lifts the yoke [Rashi – with the use of various instruments], and I gave them [Rashi – the strength] to bear" (Hoshea 11:4).
Ein Ayah: The exile was fit to imprint its deep insignia on the entire nation from its first root. This started from the time that the nation had its uniqueness set as a special characteristic. This began with Yaakov.
Realize that the exile in Egypt did not arise as an opportunity to cleanse the people of a specific sin. Rather, the exile occurred in order to prepare the nation to be able to remain alive and intact as a defined national unit, which maintains its character, even under the conditions of exile, without having its form blurred. It would have been fitting if this stamp, of being capable of withstanding the yoke of exile and standing strong, would have started from the beginning of the "flowering of the nation" in a unique manner. This was set out to be the lot of Yaakov, as the personality with whom the character of the nation began.
However, due to the great level of sanctity that Yaakov possessed as an individual, it was impossible for the exile to take hold upon him. Therefore, [the oppressive part of] his exile remained only in potential but not in actuality. The fact that there was an exile in potential had an impact in the area of adjusting to the new life without allowing for the erasure of its essential form.
Yaakov’s special merit caused him to have a life of greatness and grandeur during his stay in Egypt. This also served as an omen for all future exiles, that they can become the cause of all of mankind seeing the high value of the Jewish people and their exalted uniqueness. In this way, the "enslavement" was done through ropes of a person and bonds of love. The yoke, even though it was only a yoke in potential, was raised up. The movement in the direction of supplying the spiritual and material needs was so great that it gave light through the darkness even for generations of descendants throughout their forced travels. All of these elements together, the darkness of exile and its small elements of life, were able to lead to the final goal – the revelation of the grandeur of Hashem, through the honor and grandeur that Israel reached. This is as the pasuk says, "All who see them will recognize them as the seed that is blessed by Hashem" (Yeshayahu 61:9).