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.
Addicted to Bondage
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.
In 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 surprise us.
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. 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 days.