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Collecting Straw

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

What was once only a dream, a vague hope based on a tradition passed from parent to child, had now become tangible, palpable: Redemption. The word was no longer an abstract concept; it was now a part of the people's thoughts and vocabulary. The people had begun to believe that the end of the long, dark exile was within reach: Moshe had arrived. He was a heaven-sent advocate, and more. He would coax, cajole and threaten Pharaoh until they were all free, and he would lead them on their way.

And then their hopes came crashing down, their pleasant daydream of redemption morphing into a nightmare even more intense than the misery in which they had lived up to that point. Their enslavement would continue, unabated, but their hardship would grow: Production quotas had to be met even though the Jews were no longer provided with raw materials, making their workload that much greater:

And on that day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, 'You shall no more give the people straw to make bricks, as you have until today; let them go and gather straw for themselves.' (Shmot 5:6-7)

For some reason,(1) before the Exodus, the situation had to become even more dire; only when their dream of redemption appeared to be hopeless, the Jews would finally leave. Why was this a necessary component of the Exodus? Why was the enormous suffering endured until this point not sufficient; why the additional darkness before the glorious light?(2)

'And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spoke to the people, saying, "Thus said Pharaoh, 'I will not give you straw. Go, get straw where you can find it; yet nothing of your work shall be diminished.'" So the people scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather straw. And the task masters hurried them, saying, 'Fulfill your works, your daily quotas, as when there was straw.' And the officials of the People of Israel, which Pharaoh's task masters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, 'Why have you not fulfilled your task in making bricks both yesterday and today, as till now? Then the officers of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, saying, Why do you deal thus with your servants? There is no straw given to your servants, and they say to us, 'Make bricks;' and, behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people. But he said, 'You are idle, you are idle; therefore you say, Let us go and do sacrifice to God. Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall you deliver the quantity of bricks.' And the officers of the People of Israel saw that they were in evil plight, after it was said, 'You shall not diminish from your daily quota of bricks.' (Shmot 5:10-19)

The Jewish police are beaten for the shortfall in production; they turn to Pharaoh, hoping that he will see the logic of their words and cancel this latest decree. They serve as a buffer between the taskmasters and the people, but where are Moshe and Aharon, the leaders who had stirred the people's dormant hopes of redemption? After speaking flowery words of freedom, after confronting Pharaoh and bringing about a tightening of the iron fist of slavery, Moshe and Aharon are nowhere to be seen, and the lower tier of Jewish leadership is left to absorb the beatings meted out by Pharaoh and the Egyptian taskmasters.

The Midrash has a disturbing explanation for Moshe's disappearance:

'And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers' (Shmot 5:10). Such being the decree, Moshe returned to Midian, where he tarried for six months, while Aharon remained in Egypt. It was then that Moshe took back his wife and children to Midian. 'Go yourselves, get you straw...': (Shmot Rabbah 5:18)

The Midrash claims that when Moshe's initial foray into politics failed, and his impassioned plea to release his people was rebuffed, Moshe simply left the scene. He took his family and returned "home" to Midian, leaving behind an excruciating situation that had became intolerable, impossible. The Jews' new-found hope was dashed: their workload increased, but the feeling that God and His messenger had abandoned them must have made all of their other troubles seem secondary. Only an historical perspective keeps the reader from joining in this despair: Moshe returns, and the fight for redemption is eventually won,(3) but only after this 'bump in the road', the delay of redemption symbolized by the requirement to gather the straw.

Pharaoh's decree encapsulates, for the Children of Israel and for the sensitive reader of the text, strands of allusion and metaphor that are part and parcel of the greater fabric of Jewish identity and philosophy. The first time straw appears in the Torah is at the well outside Haran: Avraham's servant comes in search of a wife for his master's son, and Rivka offers him water for himself and his animals, as well as teven, straw. The midrash tells us that, years later, Rivka's son Esav raises facetious questions regarding the possibility of performing a mitzva with straw:(4)

R. Abbahu said: He was a trapper and a fieldsman, trapping [i.e. deceiving] at home and trapping in the field. Trapping at home [by asking]: 'How do you tithe salt?' In the field [he asked], 'How do you tithe straw?' (Midrash Rabbah 63:10)

Straw is the dry stalk that covers up the seed or grain. Looking at the plant, one might be mislead by the ratio of the wheat to the chaff, and confuse quantity for quality: the most important element is the nutritious seed that is hidden within the straw. Esav focuses on the straw and not the grain, the salt and not the food. In the symbolic language of the midrash, this is a metaphor for focusing on the tafel and not the ikkar, the insignificant as opposed to the significant. Esav chose to split hairs, as it were, to befuddle the minds of others by mocking the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law.(5) He focused on insignificant aspects of the law in order to obscure or justify his refusal to submit to a higher order of moral accountability.

As Rav Menachem Mendel of Shklov observes, Esav chose his tactics well: Esav's father Yitzchak was defined by his life-long quest for spiritual clarity. Yitzchak's spiritual drive centers on erev - twilight. The word erev literally means mixture; Yitzchak's service was an attempt to clarify the mixture, to transform the confusion of dark and light, of day and night, into clarity.(6) In the words of the Arizal, Yitzchak's erev prayer expresses his quest to rid the world of erev rav and ta'arovet, to counter the effects of the confusion of good and evil brought about by the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

As we have seen, Rivka serves God through acts of kindness; she offers food and drink to a travelling stranger, and straw for his animals. Her actions are a resounding answer to the cynical question Esav later uses to torment his family and make a mockery of everything they stand for. Esav's entire outlook is superficial; he focuses on the chaff while ignoring the kernel of truth and morality within.

The importance of the theme of straw may be found in our Oral Tradition as well. The Talmud records another central character in Jewish history who knew how to serve God with straw: Rabbi Akiva:

The daughter of Kalba Savu'a betrothed herself to Rabbi Akiva. When her father heard thereof, he vowed that she was not to benefit from aught of his property. Then she went and married him in winter. They slept on straw, and he had to pick out the straw from her hair. 'If only I could afford it,' said he to her, 'I would present you with Jerusalem of gold.' [Later] Eliyahu came to them in the guise of a mortal, and cried out at the door. 'Give me a bit of straw, for my wife is in childbirth and I have nothing for her to lie on.' 'See!' Rabbi Akiva observed to his wife, 'there is a man who lacks even straw.' [Subsequently] she counseled him, 'Go, and become a scholar.' (Nedarim 50a)

This passage echoes Rivka's act of kindness with straw, and perhaps a tikkun for Esav's cynicism: Rabbi Akiva gives tzedaka from straw. In answer to Esav's facetious question, it is possible to give tithes from straw.

All of these associations cannot have been lost on the Children of Israel. Teven, straw, was a symbol of their past, a type of code-word for their shared heritage, as well as the elemental stuff of their everyday existence. Pharaoh's decree must surely have struck a chord that resonated deep within them: According to some commentators this decree was connected to Shabbat; they were now forced to sacrifice their one weekly day of rest, Shabbat, to gather straw in order to meet their quotas during the rest of their working week. Pharaoh's decree, aimed at curtailing the Jewish slaves' "recreational time" and stamping out any further requests for "vacation", endangered far more than production quotas or physical hardship: This nation of slaves had managed to maintain their identity and cohesion during the generations of exile and slavery by recharging their spiritual batteries on Shabbat. Now, this, too, was taken from them. Rebbe Dovid of Lelov is quoted as explaining, that when the Jews were in subsequent exiles, it was Torah observance, and especially Shabbat observance, that kept them together as a people. In Egypt, they did not have the benefit of any ritual observance to help them maintain their identity. With Shabbat taken from them, they ran the risk of extinction as a nation; in fact, this was lay at the heart of Pharaoh's harshest decrees.(7) In this sense, the order to withhold straw from the brick-makers was parallel to the decree to throw newborn Jewish males into the sea: Both edicts aimed to obliterate Jewish identity.(8)

The word which describes the gathering of the straw is koshesh, clearly conjugated from the word "kash", another word for straw. This word is found later on in the Torah: As the Jews wander in the desert, one man transgresses against the laws of Shabbat. This man, whose name is never mentioned, is described as a mekoshesh: He was guilty of gathering wood on Shabbat:

And while the People of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man who gathered sticks on the Shabbat day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moshe and Aharon, and to all the congregation. And they put him in custody, because it had not been revealed what should be done to him. (Bamidbar 15:32-34)

Mekoshesh is conjugated in the present progressive (ongoing) tense: he "is gathering", or he continues to gather. In other words, the rabbis explain, he desecrates the Shabbat - and, despite the pleas, warnings and admonishing of his family and friends, he does not desist. He continues to gather. In this context, the word osef would have been preferable to mekoshesh; the former describes the collection of wood while the latter is specific to straw.(9) The text is very specific about his transgression; why, then, is a term that refers to straw utilized, if in fact he collected wood?

Once again, we must be very sensitive to the allusion. The use of the word mekoshesh is anything but arbitrary. The Torah employs this word to connect the behavior of the wood-gatherer to the gathering of straw by the Jewish slaves.(10) Let us consider the context of the mekoshesh incident: The Jews were on their way to the Promised Land, but they were sentenced to endure a terrible setback. The entire generation that had been taken out of Egypt would perish in the desert because of the sin of the spies. The people became disheartened, depressed. Many must have felt that all hope was lost, that their dream of the Land of Israel was over. The wood-gatherer does not "accidentally" desecrate Shabbat. He commits an unheard of act, a flagrant violation of Shabbat, in order to remind his brethren that this is not the first setback they have experienced. His transgression is very carefully described as mekoshesh, as if to shake them from their reverie of self-pity and despair: "Remember," he seems to tell them, "after the setback in Egypt, things seemed just as hopeless. There, too, we knew the pain of dashed hopes and disappointed aspirations. There, too, just as our final goal was within reach we experienced a painful reversal. We must not give up. Our mission is far greater than the here-and-now."(11)

The mekoshesh takes tragic, self-sacrificing action when others submit to crippling despair. They have been issued a collective death sentence, and they cannot find the strength to continue their mission. They think that their actions are no longer meaningful,(12) that their fate has been sealed and their remaining years irrelevant. He pushes their reasoning back in their faces by forcing the issue: his own death sentence is moved up thirty-nine years, jarring the entire congregation from the reverie into which they had slipped.(13)

The imagery of the straw was powerful enough to re-invigorate the nation in the desert. Other symbolic language used to describe Pharaoh's edict contain equally powerful messages that should not be overlooked: One linguistic anomaly that jumps at the trained eye is the word tosifun (Shmot 5:7), translated as 'to continue'. The spelling of this word is unusual, even singular, and seems to be built around a play on words: Tosifun is written with an "extra" alef, which shifts the root of the word from 'additional', to - 'to gather.'(14)

You shall no more give the people straw to make bricks, as till now; let them go and gather straw for themselves. (Shmot 5:7)

The wording of this verse leads us in an unexpected direction: We all know that the events leading up to the redemption from Egypt are commemorated by the holiday of Pesach. What we might overlook, if we do not stop and take note of the very specific and singular words of the Torah that describe these events, is that there is a connection with another of our major festival alluded to in these verses. Sukkot (also known as the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles), which ostensibly commemorates the tents or clouds that protected the Jews in the desert, is also called the "Festival of Gathering":

And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year's end. (Shmot 34:22)

You shall observe the Festival of Sukkot seven days, as you gather in your grain and your wine. (Devarim 16:13)

Is Sukkot related to the gathering of straw in Egypt? Is this what the text hints at when the Torah adds a seemingly extraneous alef to Pharaoh's command that the Jews gather their own straw? While the story of the collecting of the straw may seem a minor detail in the Passover story, perhaps it sets the stage for the Sukkot holiday, or Chag HaAsif.

What is the sukka, after all? It is a spiritual abode made out of the chaff, or refuse, which is normally rejected. "Garbage" is to be used in the service of God.(15)

Our three major holidays, Pesach Shavuot and Sukkot, represent three different perspectives of time. Pesach commemorates the past, and our challenge is to connect to that past, to make it a part of our consciousness. In every generation, the Jew must make the events of the Exodus a part of his or her own personal narrative. Shavuot may be more aptly described in the present progressive tense: The giving of the Torah is far more than an historical event. The Torah is alive, fresh and new each day. It is given to each of us individually and all of us collectively, and we accept it each year anew on Shavuot. Sukkot differs from both of these festivals because it relates and refers to the future. Sukkot encompasses our vision of a future reality which differs drastically from our own. Sukkot is the holiday of which so many prophets and prophecies speak:

And it shall come to pass, that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. (Zecharya 14:16)

The Prophet Zecharia tells us that the day will come when the nations of the world will make a pilgrimage and celebrate in Jerusalem. This universal festival will not be Pesach or Shavuot, but Sukkot: The Festival of the Gathering, Hag HaAsif, is the time for collecting and rejoicing in all of the bounty with which God has blessed us - the fruit and the chaff. Sukkot represents an inclusive vision for all of humankind, Jews and non-Jews alike. It is a holiday of the future, because its frame of reference is an all-inclusive, messianic vision of a world redeemed, of humanity united in truth and enlightenment. The festival will celebrate the ultimate reconciliation between the children of Yaakov and the children of Esav, between those whose ancestors knew how to serve God with straw and those who rejected the spiritual legacy of Yitzchak - a rejoining of the wheat and the chaff, as it were.

The Exodus from Egypt was particularistic in scope, a limited redemption of one nation. It impacted only the Jews. The Egyptians were not transformed or enlightened by the experience; they were defeated, decimated. While it is true that some stragglers joined that epic march out of Egypt, many, many more - even Jews - were left behind. Those who joined the march out of Egypt amounted to no more than a band of opportunists, and their overall contribution to the course of Jewish history was overwhelmingly negative. In fact, they were known as erev rav, a term that harkens back to the confusion between good and evil Yitzchak sought to eradicate. The future redemption that is celebrated on Sukkot suffers from no such particularism, nor from the confusion that is represented by erev rav. It includes all of mankind, all of nature:(16)

The wolf also shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Yishayahu 11:6-7)

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Yishayahu 65:25)

The Rambam understood that these verses refer not to the physical lion, but to the bloodthirsty nations of the world who have lived on a steady diet of Jewish blood. The great miracle of the messianic age will be that the nations of the world, and not only the beasts of prey, will abandon the diet they have been cultivating for millennia. In that new reality, there will be no victims. Nations, and lions, will eat the food of kindness - symbolized, as in the story of Rivka, as in the story of Rabbi Akiva - by straw. Peace will reign. When the final redemption takes place, all of Creation will be redeemed. God's presence will fill the world, and no one will be left behind.



1. For a mystical explanation of this phenomenon see Rabbi Yishaya Horowitz Sefer Shnie Luchot Habrit , Sefer Shmot Parshat Yitro Derech Chaim Tochchot Musar section 3.

2. The Midrash Rabbah Shmot 5:18 speaks of four levels of slavery; the last level is when they were forced to collect their own straw. See Rabi Eliyahu Kitov, Sefer Hatoda'ah chapter 23. Also see Sefer Hayom by Rabbi Moshe ben Yehuda Machir: 'And the same day Pharaoh commanded' (5, 6), thus teaching how wicked he was in not delaying a moment to do evil unto them. This was his fourth decree. 'The taskmasters' - these are the Egyptians; 'and their officers'-these are the elders of Israel. 'Ye shall no more give the people straw to make bricks... And the tale of the bricks' (ib. 7, 8); from this we derive that each person had an allotted number of bricks to make each day. At first he induced them to labor with subtle tongue, persuading them to make bricks with all their might, and in order to see what was the maximum they could produce; and according to the number they produced on the first day, it was decreed that they should produce all the rest of their days.

3. This "time out" is of great significance, for there are many who see the delay in redemption from Egypt as a prototype for the delay in the final redemption, including the element of the redeemer disappearing for a period of time. In this Midrash, the duration of the redeemer's absence is six months.

4. For a fuller treatment on Esav, his words and straw, see my article "The Voice (and Hands) of Yaakov, which will be included in a forthcoming volume (tentatively titled) "M'oray Ha'Aish - Fire and Flame: Insights into the Weekly Torah Portion" to be published by Geffen Publishers.

5. It is possible that Esav was sincere, yet there was a disconnection between his words and actions, see my article cited in the previous footnote.

6. See writings of Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Liqutim, page 329.

7. The Midrash in Shmot Rabbah 5, teaches that part of the motivation of the Egyptians was to force the Jews to break Shabbat: The Israelites had scrolls which they studied every Shabbat. This entire line of reasoning seems to take the actions of the mekoshesh who violated Shabbat (see below), and read them back into the narrative regarding Pharaoh's decree: 'Therefore they cry, saying... Let heavier work be laid upon the men... And let them not regard (yish'eu) lying words' (Shmot 5:9). This is to teach us that the Israelites possessed scrolls, with the contents of which they occupied themselves each Shabbat, assuring them that God would redeem them. Thus because they rested on Shabbat, Paroh said to them: 'Let heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard lying words' (ib.) - let them not take delight or rest on the Sabbath day.

8. Reb Dovid of Lelov explained that had this decree come into effect before the Jews' hopes of redemption were reawakened, they would have been too weak to withstand it, and would have become extinct in Egypt. Thus, it was part of God's plan to fill them with hope prior to this final decree. Reb Dovid is cited by many 19th century Chassidic masters, among them the Shem M'Shmuel on Shmot, 5672.

9. The Hebrew language has different verbs to describe the harvest of different types of produce. For example, the harvest of grapes is batzir, whereas the harvest of grain is katzir; the harvest of olives is masik while the harvest of fruits is katif.

10. The Netziv makes the linguistic connection, but makes no mention of the thematic connection.

11. This connection was suggested to me by my friend and colleague Rabbi Chaim Tabasky.

12. See Tosfot Baba Batra 119b, and the Midrash cited by Tosfot.

13. For a fuller explanation of his thinking and the mistake of the wood gatherer, see Explorations, Parshat Shlach.

14. See Ibn Ezra and Hizkuni, who deftly explain this idiosyncrasy.

15. See Rashi Dvarim 16:13, Sukka 12a, and Rashi's comments.

16. Rav Kook in his commentary to the siddur, Olat Raayah page 292 surmises that in order for animals to be transformed, and for the lamb and wolf to successfully reside together, the animals will need to under go a transformation which will mirror man's transformation: Just as all men will recognize God, all animals will lose the animal within and also be raised to a higher level of consciousness. At that point just as the animal changes it's diet so will man, and eating flesh will become simply inappropriate.

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