PHARAOH AND THE DUMBING DOWN
Rabbi David Zauderer
As we begin the second of the five books of Moses, the book of Exodus, we find the Jewish people in Egypt, persecuted and enslaved by their Egyptian hosts. Moses and Aaron are sent on a mission to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to ask him to let the Jewish people go for a three-day journey in the wilderness, so that they could bring offerings to God. To which Pharaoh responds brazenly, "God who?"
And then the Torah records the following words of Pharaoh to his taskmasters: "You shall no longer give straw to the people to manufacture the bricks as yesterday … let them gather straw for themselves … but the quota of bricks that they were making yesterday … do not reduce it -- for they are lazy. Therefore they cry out saying, 'Let us go out and bring offerings to our God.' Let the work be heavier upon the men … and let them not pay attention to false words."(Exodus 5:7-9)
These last words of Pharaoh are difficult to understand. What were the "false words" that Pharaoh was referring to? The Midrash explains that the Jewish people had in their possession scrolls that they would study from on Shabbat, and that would instill in them the hope and promise of a future redemption and an end to their misery and suffering.
When Pharaoh saw that the Jews were studying these scrolls on the weekend, looking for answers and trying to bolster their faith in a God who would one day redeem them, he immediately ordered his taskmasters to make their work even more difficult so that they wouldn't have the time or presence of mind to think about why all this is happening to them, and would just go on working for Pharaoh.
It's not very clear what the exact nature of these "scrolls" were. Some commentaries explain that they were actually scrolls of the book of Job which deals with the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. The Jews who were being persecuted and tortured in Egypt were thinking quite a lot about their terrible lot. And they spent their every free moment pondering the events that were occurring to them, looking for some message or hint of divine guidance and providence.
While the Jews were building all those pyramids, they had to be asking themselves and each other, "Why is this happening to us? Why would God allow his beloved children to suffer so much?" And when the work was finished for the day, or on Saturday when they had the day off, they would pull out those treasured scrolls and desperately search for answers to these difficult questions. Pharaoh saw what was happening and put an immediate stop to it. He gave the Jews more work to do, until they had no more time or energy to think about anything besides getting to work, and coming home from work to go to sleep.
THE JEWISH EXILE IN EGYPT: PORTENT OF THE FUTURE
There is an ancient tradition handed down from our sages that the original exile and subsequent redemption of the Jews in Egypt was a portent of the future exile and ultimate redemption of the Jewish people in the era leading up to the coming of the Messiah (i.e. where we are now). And that whatever happened to our ancestors in Egypt is a sign of what is eventually going to be replayed in our own times as well.
There are amazing parallels between our Jewish ancestors in Egypt over 3400 years ago and the Jewish people today. The Talmud tells us that during the long, bitter 210-year exile in Egypt, a great many Jews "fell away" from the traditions and observances of their forefathers. Living among a foreign nation in a high-pressure work environment made it easy for the Jews of Egypt to assimilate and blend in to the greater Egyptian culture, abandoning much of what their fathers and grandfathers had practiced as Jews. Yet, despite the low level of observance and custom, the Talmud tells us that the Jews never forgot that they were Jews -- and remained proud of their heritage.
Well, in our own times, we have witnessed history practically repeating itself. A great majority of the Jewish people have left the practices and observances of its predecessors in Europe and has adopted the lifestyle and culture of the Western world in which we live. Yet, even those who have shed most of the observances of old, remain, by and large, proud of who they are as Jews, standing up for the State of Israel, and giving much charity to Jewish causes. And, much like the Jews of ancient Egypt who went through great upheavals and cataclysmic world events throughout their period of exile, we, too, have witnessed in our times tremendous destruction, war, persecution, and social disorder.
The very same questions the Jews in Egypt struggled with -- why would a good God make His children suffer so, is there a purpose for our being where we are, does history have a design to it, where are we all headed to -- can be asked in our day as well. Why do the righteous suffer? What is the reason for the anti-Semitism which never seems to go away? When will we see the end of terrorist bombings of innocent Jews? Is there an end to history as we know it? What is life really all about?
DID YOU EVER STOP TO THINK -- AND NOT START AGAIN?
The problem is that the parallel between the Egyptian exile and our present one is too exact. While the Jews in Egypt originally used to spend all their free time pondering all these major important questions -- Pharaoh put an abrupt end to all that when he increased the Jews' workload. No longer could the people afford the luxury of doing what is probably the most important thing a Jew can do -- stop to think about life and its meaning.
And the same has happened to us today. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, an 18th century Italian philosopher and ethicist, wrote: "One of the tricks of the evil inclination is to make a person become too involved in his work so that he has no time to think about where he is going in life … and this is much like the advice that Pharoah gave when he said 'Let the work be heavier upon the men ….', that his intention was not only to deprive them of any time in which they could scheme against him, but to stop the people from thinking about anything in their lives, by virtue of their persistent and interminable labor."
We are so busy, we work such long and hard hours, even our vacations are frantic and tiring -- when do we really have time to sit and ponder the kinds of questions that our ancestors thought about in their spare time in Egypt? When do we have the presence of mind to think seriously about the direction we have taken in our lives? And what about what's going on in Israel today, with terrorism and all the international pressure to divide the country in two? Is there a message there, or is there something we can do to help? And, closer to home, have we given much thought to the fact that we, as a Jewish people, are gradually disappearing -- with the alarmingly high rate of assimilation and intermarriage in America today, there won't be many Jews around in a century or two. Have we thought about the implications of those statistics? How does all that is going on around us affect us and our families? How can we gaurantee that our own descendants will remain proud Jews?
There is so much to think about, yet we seem to be too busy going about our daily lives to give the time necessary to ponder all these questions.
THE GREATEST JEW WITH THE GREATEST QUESTION
Now I am not guaranteeing that we will come up with all the answers when we set aside time to think about them. Even the greatest Jew who ever lived, Moses, had a question which is recorded in this week's Torah portion, to which he didn't really get a good answer. Moses saw how, after he had come as a messenger from God to alleviate the burdens of the Jewish people, Pharaoh had made the workload even greater and more difficult for the Jews. So he asked God, "Why have You made it worse for Your people?"
And God responded to Moses, "Just wait and see what I am going to do. Soon enough you'll figure out what My plan is for the redemption of the Jewish people."
Sometimes we don't get the answers that we want. Sometimes we have to do what God told Moses to do -- just wait and see and have faith that in the end the good guys will win. We might not get answered right away, but if we're finding the time in our busy, work-filled schedules to think about our lives, and about the bigger picture of world and Jewish history, and we're asking ourselves and God some serious questions -- then we are definitely way ahead of the game.
Rabbi David Zauderer writes from Atlanta.
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