In a few impacting pesukim
in the beginning of Sefer Shemos, the Torah sets in motion the political
and emotional forces that were to keep the children of Israel in bondage for
the next two hundred and ten years.
These same forces have operated as a snare throughout history and are
present today, only the stage setting has been specially designed to lure this
generations unwary into its web of spiritual bondage. The mindset that led to
their subjugation in Egypt
was their yearning to be like everyone else – to assimilate into the culture of
whatever country they found themselves in. There are those who in their
eagerness to be a part of the culture, may mistakenly replace their service of
Hashem with loyal service to the governing regime in a manner far beyond and
above that which is required by the ordinary dictates of good citizenship.
who personifies the Jewish nemesis, the yetzer hara, understood that as
long as the Jewish people were living in accordance with high standard of
spiritual development referred to as the “Children of (Bnei) Israel,” he
would not be able to subjugate them. They
were the beneficiaries of Hashem’s promise to Avraham Avinu – a promise which
was to be eternally evidenced by the bris mila, covenant of circumcision. However, after Joseph died, the Jews stopped
circumcising their sons because they wanted to emulate the Egyptians. (Midrash Rabba I:8). In order to prevent their assimilation,
Hashem transformed the appreciation the Egyptians previously had into a feeling
that the Bnei Israel had become a threat to them. The yetzer hara, in
the guise of Pharaoh, then changed its form, face and presentation in order to
subjugate the Israelites and turn them into servants of the state.
To induce the Israelites to
participate in their building program, the Egyptians hung a brick kiln around
Pharaoh’s neck, inviting the Jews to join him in brick making. Each man went to work making as many bricks
as possible, which thereafter became the expected quota. The Jews thus became
willing accomplices in their own enslavement, wooed and won over by this appeal
to “love of country.” This technique, oft repeated in Jewish history, trapped
them into a process of assimilation and distancing them from their connection
to the Torah of the Creator.
Modern society today poses a
different but equally challenging test, by luring its citizens towards the
ephemeral standards of the times. Their value scale of success is graded by
such “yardsticks” as how wealthy and famous one is. The lifestyle that emerges
from this philosophy can be as, if not more, detrimental to spiritual growth
than the servitude imposed by the Egyptians.
By the time the Israelites began
to see the futility and hypocrisy of their alliance with Pharaoh, it was too
late. The bondage had become an addiction.
The Bnei Yisrael were given the task of building arei miskenos,
cities, whose names were Pisom and Ra’amseis.
The word miskenos has the same root as the word miskein which
means misfortune or poverty. Pisom
means sudden or immediate. It also can
refer to the mouth of the abyss, pi tehom (Midrash Rabba
I:10). Ra’am means loud, like a
our hectic lives, where sudden and immediate claims upon our time are an all
too frequent occurrence, if we are not discerning, we may find that we are
building Pisom. We may also necessarily
be building Ra’amses, since these calls to duty are usually loud and very
difficult to ignore. One of the ploys of the yetzer hara is to persuade
us that we must accomplish everything we have set out to do which can lead to
feel overwhelmed. Pharaoh well understood that working without respite on
purposeless tasks that could never be completed would weaken the physical,
mental, emotional and most importantly spiritual health of the Nation.
Acting too quickly and assuming
excessive obligations without enough considered thought as to their value and
purpose can make a person feel as if they are enslaved. The connection between
poignant (distressing) said of affairs and the bondage in Egypt is apparent.
We can now readily see how these words of our eternal Torah apply to anyone at
any time: “They embittered their lives
with avoda kasha, hard work, bechomer, with mortar and with leveinim,
bricks, and with every labor of the field; all the labors that they performed
with them were with crushing harshness” (Shemos 1:14). The work was kasha, hard. This word is related to the word for straw, kash,
to hint to us that work is hard when it is like straw to us, that is, when it
is commonplace and purposeless. Mortar,
chomer, which in Hebrew also means material, represents that which is
stripped of spiritual content, of inspiration.
Even without purpose and without inspiration we can still produce leveinim,
bricks, but when one works under those circumstances they are reduced to field
laborers (avoda basadeh) deprived of higher motivation, dignity and joy.
But take heart; there is a
way out. There is an answer that may surprise
us. Moshe Rabbeinu told Pharaoh to
release us because we are being called upon to serve Hashem. Service of the Creator is not always easy,
but it has all of the components that make it humane and perfect. It provides meaningful obligations that have
an eternal reward. It provides periodic
rest periods on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim dedicated to simcha. Can a lifestyle that thrives on competition
and stresses the importance of out -doing the neighbors in material
acquisitions, compare with the eternal, meaningful rhythm of our beautiful
When we stop and take stock of our
options and our strengths, the time we have, the things we must do in order to
fulfill our obligations as Jews as opposed to those things that we may be doing
to serve some other cultural demand, we may be pleasantly surprised by the
result. We may be able to simplify our
lives and our goals and live in greater harmony then we ever thought possible. The job of the Egyptian taskmasters was to
maximize the burdens upon the Israelites which ultimately shortened their
servitude and enhanced their purification in the caldron that was Egypt. It is precisely when the “task masters of
time” bear down upon us that we have the opportunity to cull the necessary from
the unnecessary and focus upon those matters that are essential to our avoda
can be reached by sincerely asking for Hashem’s help in the process.
This will actualize Pharaoh’s
fear that we will “go up [be raised up]
from the land.” “The land” which represents
our physical and mental attachment to this world will no longer have a hold on
us. When we cleave to Hashem through His
Torah, we will be elevated to a higher level of consciousness referred to as
“the children of (Bnei) Israel.”
The Torah teaches us that the
more the Jewish nation was afflicted the more they increased and spread out.
This means that even during this period when we, as a nation, were far from
reaching the perfect service of Hashem, His Divine Radiance was still with us. In the dark and immoral environment of Egypt, Israelite
slaves, who were deprived of all the benefits that culture and civilization are
thought to bestow, were being forged into a holy nation. The very harshness of the bondage actually
strengthened the potential in each Israelite, so that when the time was ripe,
Hashem would redeem us. The teaching here is very profound as it is a lesson to
us that suffering and affliction can have very beneficial results. We do not
ask for tests, but if they come, they can inspire our best performances. From
this spiritual plateau we will not only be free from Pharaoh and Mitzrayim but
we will be able to fulfill the will of the Creator in the holy land of Eretz Israel.
May we merit this soon in our
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