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Living to Work

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

Egyptian slavery and man’s drive for meaning.

"The Egyptians started to make the Israelites do labor designated to break their bodies." (Exodus 1:13)

In order to keep the Israelites occupied so that they would not have time to think about Moses' words heralding their freedom, Pharaoh decreed that henceforth the Jewish slaves would have to collect their own straw while maintaining their previous quota of bricks. Why did Pharaoh not just double their quota? In that way, he would have forced the Israelites to work harder and would have benefited from a doubling of production.

The Torah describes our labor in Egypt as avodas parech, literally, work that breaks the person. Avodas parech is defined as work that has no purpose and is designed just to keep the slave busy (see Maimonides Laws of Servants 11:6). We are specifically forbidden to work a Jewish servant in this fashion (Leviticus 25:43).

Pharaoh understood that nothing so diminishes a person as seeing no purpose to his activity, no result in which he can take pride. Thus he had Jewish slaves build arei miskenos, which can be translated as pitiful cities. These cities, says the Midrash, were built on the foundations of sand, and toppled over immediately after being built, only to be rebuilt again. Thus, doubling the Israelites' workload without doubling production, fit perfectly into Pharaoh's plans.

Work can be exhilarating, fulfilling and ennobling, but only when it is melachah - purposeful work, work with a goal. But purposeless work (avodah) only serves to break a person's spirit. A prisoner in a Soviet labor camp was confined to his cell for ten years and forced to turn a handle that protruded from his cell wall. He was told that the handle turned a flour mill on the other side, but upon being liberated, discovered that the handle was connected to nothing. The realization that he had labored for nothing was more crushing to him than the ten years of imprisonment.

The Talmud (Beitzah 16a) calls the Babylonians foolish for eating their bread with bread. The ba'alei mussar (Jewish ethicists) explain that they were caught in a vicious cycle with no purpose other than its own perpetuation. They worked only in order to earn enough bread to have the strength to work another day and earn more bread to sustain themselves for another day. Working to eat so that one can work some more results in a life with no purpose. When the necessity of earning a living is removed from such a life it loses all meaning. That is why so many retirees become depressed, and even suicidal, when they stop working.

Those with Torah are spared this plight, for they realize that everything they do is to secure eternal life in Olam Haba, the World to Come. This recognition gives meaning and value to all of life's pursuits, for the greater the purpose and goal, the more significant the effort.

"Six days shall you labor (ta'avod) and do all your 'melachah,' and the seventh day will be a Sabbath to Your God..." (Exodus 20:9-10).

What transforms a person's menial labor (avodah) into purposeful, creative activity (melachah) is Shabbos, the taste of Olam Haba in this world.

The word parech can be figured with a numerical value of 39, corresponding to the 39 melachos of Shabbos, the creative activities that went into building and maintaining the Mishkan. Thus the opposite of avodas parech - aimless, purposeless work - is meleches hamishkan, meleches Shabbos - purposeful work that leads to eternal results.

Women many times feel that their work is avodas parech, with no lasting results. The clean clothes are soon soiled again, the house messed up as soon as it is straightened. The result of hours of toil in the kitchen are not framed and saved for perpetuity, but quickly devoured. The key to making these chores ennobling and exhilarating is constantly remembering their ultimate goal the creation of an atmosphere enabling each member of the family to function properly and develop his or her ultimate potential.

Moses was initially instructed to tell Pharaoh that the Jews wanted to leave Egypt for three days of celebration and sacrifice in the desert. Pharaoh was not told of the real intent of their departure so that he could exercise his free will. Had he been told that the Jews wished to leave forever, he could not possibly have granted their request. The Israelites, on the other hand, had to be told the truth about their departure even though the prospect of having to conquer the Land might fill them with dread, for the ultimate goal of the Land of Israel gave meaning to the entire Exodus.

In this light, we can understand the following Midrash:

Moses proclaimed, "I sinned with the word az, and I will rectify [my sin] with the word az. I sinned by saying 'From when (me'az) I approached Pharaoh to speak in Your name, things have gotten worse for the Jewish people' (Exodus 5:23). And I will rectify [my sin] with the word az - 'Then (az) Moses will sing the song at the Red Sea' (Exodus 15:1)."

Moses sinned by isolating a moment - Pharaoh's decree of additional labor - and not placing it in the perspective of the ultimate goal. Had Moses seen the decree as one more stage toward the eventual Redemption, he would have viewed it differently. Moses rectified his error when he sang at the Splitting of the Sea not only for the moment of present salvation, but for all the future redemptions until the resurrection of the dead. Thus he sang in the future tense.

The Mishnah in Avos (1:3) says that one should not serve God in order to receive reward. Maimonides (Laws of Teshuva 10:1) explains the reward referred to includes even the reward of Olam Haba for fulfilling the Mitzvot. Rather, one should serve God out of pure love and devotion, with no ulterior motive at all. Yet the Torah is full of verses that exhort us to observe its commandments "in order that you live" or "in order that your days be multiplied," (see e.g., Exodus 20:12, Deut. 4:1, 4:40, et. al.) - which are understood as referring to eternal life.

The resolution of this seeming contradiction is that the knowledge that the Mitzvot result in eternal life gives added dimension and significance to the performance of the Mitzvah itself - apart from any concern with the reward of Olam Haba - and thereby engenders greater love for the commandments. In this context, does not mean "in order that," referring to a consequence of the performance of the Mitzvot, but rather "because" in the sense of revealing the true significance of the Mitzvot. Recognition of that significance enhances the love of the Creator, Who bestowed His creation with eternal meaning.

To truly appreciate the significance of our mundane pursuits and the Mitzvot that constitute our service of God, we must be constantly aware of our ultimate goal of bringing the world to perfection by fulfilling God's will.

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