In a few impacting verses (pesukim)
in the beginning of the Book of Exodus (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 the Creator (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.
Pharaoh, 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 our forefather (Avinu) 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.
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.
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 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 thunderclap.
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 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 and 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
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
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. 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
All articles appearing on this blog are copyrighted by Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin Falk. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share/download/copy this information as long as it is accompanied by the copyright. Separately authored/copyrighted materia
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