Between Toil and Work: Meaning Making in Our Effort

commercial from the Dutch mail-order pharmacy Doc Morris has left the internet in tears by showing the reason behind a grandfather’s drive to get in shape for Christmas with his family. What would inspired this elderly man to take on this bizzare fitness regimen with a rusty old kettlebell? Everyone thought he has gone crazy. Why would he be exercising at his age? And why these exercises? It seemed pointless until the end. It is worth a watch:

Watching this I got thinking about the end of Shmot, last week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites are enslaved to Pharaoh working tireless in his building projects. Moshe shows up to liberate them from their back breaking work. He asks Pharaoh to let them go three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to God, lest God fall upon them with pestilence or the sword. Pharaoh asked them why they caused the people to rest from their work, and commanded that the taskmasters lay heavier work on them and no longer give them straw to make brick but force them to go and gather straw for themselves to make the same quota of bricks. (Exodus 5: 4-11) The people scattered to gather straw, and the taskmasters beat the Israelite officers, asking why they had not fulfilled the quota of brick production as before.

The Israelites cried to Pharaoh, asking why he dealt so harshly with his servants, but he said that they were idle if they had time to ask to go and sacrifice to God. So the officers met Moshe and Aaron as they came from meeting Pharaoh and accused them of making the Israelites to be abhorrent to Pharaoh. There we read, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” (Exodus 5:21) Why are they yelling at Moshe? He was there to liberate them?

Now that Moshe has fomented a revolution- Pharaoh removed the resources needed for the slaved to do their work. Without the straw they needed they are left making crappy bricks. Even as slaves they had a job to do work. Even if they were not valued as human beings, they were the builders of great building. The could take pride in the quality of their work. The hatred to Moshe is because they could not longer see any value of their effort. Slavery was awful, but at the least the had value in their work. Without the needed resources their work was now just toil.

But was that the case? We see later as the Israelites were crossing the Red Sea a different image. They were marching through the mud as the Egyptians were coming for them in their chariots. We know that they water consumed the Egyptians, but how did the Israelited know how to walk across the mud?

All of those years building bricks, even if it was not yielding high quality bricks prepared them for this moment. It was not toil, it was training in how to use their legs to walk through mud. Just as this in the Song of the Sea Moshe says, “In Your great triumph You break Your opponents; You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.” ( Exodus 15: 7) The slaves were no longer “loathsome to Pharaoh” due to their lack of straw to do quality work. What was perceived as pointless toil who lost hope in their own value redeemed their years of servitude. It is not just that they were liberated as people, their effort itself was redeemed. Like the grandfather in the commercial, what was seen as useless toil was actually very holy work of using our to time meaningfully. It is quoted in the name of Bobby Darin, “It isn’t true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times if you know how.” May we all find meaning in our work and live every day with pride, purpose, and dignity.

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1 Response to “Between Toil and Work: Meaning Making in Our Effort”


  1. 1 betsy951 January 20, 2023 at 4:31 pm

    Thank you for this. Like many people, I am aware of the twists and turns my life has taken that have brought me to today. We have all spent years making crappy bricks, and sometimes they yield magnificence. Thank you for reminding us both to take a long view, and to look at the joys of today.

    Shabbat Shalom.


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