Yitzchak James Saltz
In vivid detail, this week's Torah portion describes the bitter enslavement of the Children of Israel at the hands of the Egyptians.
In vivid detail, this week's Torah portion describes the bitter enslavement of the Children of Israel at the hands of the Egyptians. In the middle of the story, the verse reports, "During those many days, it happened that the king of Egypt died, and the Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out" (Exodus 2:23). Why does the Torah associate their groaning with the death of Pharaoh? The verse implies that only after he died did the Jewish people finally cry out from their forced labor. How are these two occurrences related?
Perhaps the explanation is that Pharaoh had been overworking them to the point that they didn't even realize they were being overworked. The Midrash and commentaries relate that the full slavery did not commence in one step. Initially, Pharaoh gave them a little bit of work, like a regular boss might expect from his employees. As time passed, he continually demanded more from his Jewish workers, until the labor reached a point of complete servitude. The Children of Israel never realized what had happened to them - they were simply too busy. Only when the Pharaoh died and there was a temporary lull in the action, did they grasp the enormity of their servitude.
The Mesillas Yesharim, the classical work of mussar (Jewish ethical teachings), explains that the next Pharaoh employed a similar strategy when Moses and Aaron first presented their plea for the Jews to be freed. Afraid that the slaves would become caught up in the excitement of their potential freedom, Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters, "Let the work become heavier. . .and let them not pay attention to false words" (ibid. 5:9). If the slaves are totally preoccupied with the construction of pyramids, Pharaoh reasoned, they will have no time to think about the bitterness of their situation and dream about redemption.
Upon consideration, we might discover that this same scenario periodically occurs to us as well. Don't we sometimes become caught up in our own work to the point that we are no longer aware of what is happening around us? We become so involved in whatever we are doing that we lose sight of what is important. If we could just slow down for a second, we would realize that there are other people and other things around us that deserve attention. If we would only take the time to stop and think, we might find that we are overlooking something important, or making a serious mistake in our approach to life. It is to our detriment that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) keeps us busy so that we won't pause and consider our situation.
A man once was involved in a profession that occupied most of his time. Like many of us, he could not afford to slow down and think. In an effort to be more efficient with his time, he considered purchasing a car phone so that he could take care of some of his business and social obligations while in transit. Much to his surprise, his rabbi advised him that a car phone might not be the best solution to the problem. At least when in the car, there is nothing else to do, allowing for some much needed peace and quiet to contemplate life.
Just imagine if, at so many crucial times in our lives, we would have taken the few seconds to think. How many mistakes could have been prevented, how many more things could have gone right, and how much happier could our lives have been? In the hustle and bustle of daily life, let us not forget to take a few minutes to think about what we are doing. It could make all the difference in the world.
Yitzchak James Saltz, who hails from Atlanta, is a junior at the Ner Israel High School in Baltimore.
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