In a few 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 which were aimed at keeping this nascent people
enslaved to materialistic pursuits,
goals and values have operated as a snare throughout history and are present
today, only the stage setting has changed and the fact of the bondage has been well
The mindset that led to the
subjugation of the Children of Israel in Egypt was their yearning to be like
everyone else – to assimilate into the Egyptian culture. In their eagerness to be a part of that culture,
many mistakenly replaced 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 standards of spiritual development,” he
would not be able to subjugate them.
They were the beneficiaries of Hashem’s promise to Avraham our
forefather – a promise which was to be
eternally evidenced by the bris mila, covenant of circumcision. However, after Joseph died, some of 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 Israelite
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, trapping them into assimilation and
distancing them from their connection to the teachings (Torah) of the
Modern society today poses a
different but equally challenging test, by placing the modern equivalent of the
brick kiln around the necks of those who act as role models teaching that true value can be measured only in terms of money
and or fame.
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
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.
quickly and assuming excessive obligations without enough considered thought as
to their value and purpose can make a person feel like a slave. The connection between
such a distressing state 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 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. 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 Holy Days dedicated to joy and rest for our weary souls.
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 spiritual
work. This level of discernment can be achieved 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)
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 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
merit this soon in our days.
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