Posts Tagged 'Slavery'

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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Ultimate Freedom

In parshat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read a whole litany of rules dealing with slavery. For a group of people who had just been liberated from bondage it is hard to imagine that there would be any sanction for this behavior. How could we ever put a price on another human being? And if we are looking to make Torah relevant today the idea of slavery seems even more absurd. In our age, a time in which we are hell-bent on the idea of personal autonomy and individuality, the idea of owning another person seems totally absurd.

In his Sh”ut Memaamikeem, Responsa of the Holocaust, Rabbi Efrayim Oshry deals with a very interesting question (III: 6). How can a Jew who is subjugated to forced labor in the ghetto say the morning blessing thanking God for not making him/her a slave? Rabbi Oshry responded that despite the fact that the person was actually enslaved physically, according to the Avudraham, the original idea behind the blessing was that we should thank God for not making us spiritual slaves to idolatry. The Torah’s ideal is to be free. Freedom in the Torah is not independence, rather it is recognition of ultimate dependence. Relying on anything other than God would be idolatrous. Rabbi Oshry encouraged the person to continue to say the blessing as testimony of real freedom. In saying the blessing, the slave became liberated.

In our lives it is hard to imagine that we are physically enslaved. But, with so many things making a claim on our time, it is hard to imagine that we are truly the masters of our own time. While we abhor slavery, it seems that we have actually put a price on our own persons.  What are we working for? Are we  selling ourselves short? So stay up late, make more time in your life,  and talk about these questions with people you respect. Who knows? You might even find these conversations redeeming.

From the Heart

The other day Yishama our 5-year-old was laying in bed with my wife and Emunah out 2-year-old. Emunah reached over and caressed his cheek. Yishama remarked to Adina :

I love it when she does that. It makes my heart hurt. You know Mami, when you heart hurts because you love someone so much.

When Adina told me this story my heart just melted. As a parent I aspire to have empathetic children.

I was thinking about it this week in the context of the story of Exodus. There we read how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. As much as I marvel at my own children learning empathy at such a young age, I am stupefied to think of a grown adult not having empathy.

There are so many issues in this world that need to be fixed. I often feel if everyone only cared a little more we could solve some of these problems. But I also realize with the sheer volume of challenges, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. To get anything done at some level we need to have focus and harden our own hearts or else we would get engulfed in the huge number of issues. As parent I hope to cultivate this empathy in my children. For myself, I think I could use a little more toughening, but not too much. Out of the mouths of babes, Yishama reminded me a precious Torah. We all need to let go and be vulnerable. Life without that hurt in the heart would be slavery.


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