Parshas Shemos: Purposeful Labor, Life Satisfaction

Sefer Shemos/Sefer ha’Geula, Parshas Shemos 5782.   Baruch she’he’chiyanu v’ki’yimanu v’hi’gi’yanu la’zman ha’zehוְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה: אֵת יַעֲקֹב, אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּand these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt; Yaakov, each man and his household came (Shemos 1:1).  With these words, the book of Redemption begins.

The curtain has closed on the lives of our Avos and Imahos, and with the death of Yosef and all of his brothers (Shemos 1:6), the Torah narrative moves to our experiences in Egypt.  

In the first chapter of Shemos we learn of the Shibud Mitzrayim, the bitter and painful enslavement of the Israelites by their Egyptian tormentors.  When a new king arose ‘אֲשֶׁר לֹאיָדַע אֶתיוֹסֵףwho did not know Yosef’ (1:8), the program of propaganda, segregation, discrimination, tax oppression, slave labor and finally, infanticide, is set into motion.  It is only after hundreds of years in Egypt that the redeemer, Moshe Rabbeinu, will lead the Israelites to freedom.  

In regard to the forced slave labor, the pasuk tells us: וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת, לְפַרְעֹה אֶתפִּתֹם, וְאֶתרַעַמְסֵס, and the nation of Israel built storage cities for Pharaoh: Pisom and Ramses (1:11).  

Rashi (quoting the Sages) teaches: 

את פתם ואת רעמסס. שֶׁלֹּא הָיוּ רְאוּיוֹת מִתְּחִלָּה לְכָךְ, וַעֲשָׂאוּם חֲזָקוֹת וּבְצוּרוֹת לְאוֹצָר

At first, they were not fit for this purpose (i.e., storage), and Israel made them strong and fortified for storage.  

However, the Gemara offers us a deep insight into the actual names of these storage cities that the Israelite slaves were forced to build.  The Gemara (Sotah 11a) teaches:

אֶת פִּיתוֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס: רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל. חַד אָמַר פִּיתוֹם שְׁמָהּ, וְלָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמָהּ רַעַמְסֵס? שֶׁרִאשׁוֹן רִאשׁוֹן מִתְרוֹסֵס. וְחַד אָמַר רַעַמְסֵס שְׁמָהּ, וְלָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמָהּ פִּיתוֹם? שֶׁרִאשׁוֹן רִאשׁוֹן פִּי תְהוֹם בּוֹלְעוֹ

[They were forced to build] Pisom and Ramses. Rav and Shmuel disagree [while both assume that only one city was built, which had primary and secondary names].  One says that Pisom was its real name, and why was it called Ramses? [It is an appellation indicating that as the buildings were constructed] they collapsed [mitroses] one by one and needed to be rebuilt. And one says that Ramses was its real name, and why was it called Pisom? Because the opening of the abyss [pi tehom] swallowed each building they constructed one by one, and it sunk into the ground.

What lessons can be derived from this teaching of Chazal, which indicates that any work the slaves did was quickly destroyed – either by being swallowed up or by collapsing – and needed to be rebuilt all over again?  Why didn’t Pharaoh want the slaves building long-lasting sturdy structures, on firm soil, to serve him and his countrymen?  

R’ Shlomo Zalman Bregman, in his Short and Sweet on the Parsha writes, “The answer is that it was crucial to the Egyptians that the slaves find no taste, no meaning, and no progress in their lives whatsoever.  Even if a person is enslaved, he can at least feel some satisfaction by seeing the toil of his hands endure.  Pharaoh and the Egyptians wished to deny the slaves even this little bit of satisfaction from their labor…

“There is a very important lesson to be gleaned from here, beyond the historical reason for the names of theses cities.  A person needs to feel progress and accomplishment in life, or he will feel almost as though he is dying.  Absence of progress leads to feelings of deep dissatisfaction. If a Jew isn’t learning and growing, he will feel unsatisfied and frustrated.  There will always be a feeling that something is amiss.  This is because a life without forward progress isn’t a life at all!” (Short and Sweet on the Parsha, Feldheim, p.133). 

This is a beautiful and relevant lesson for us all.  No matter what it is that a person works on, or works towards, it is of vital importance that a sense of satisfaction is derived from one’s endeavors.  One must see the fruits of his toil to recognize progress and growth in life.  This is true in both the physical realm and the spiritual realm.  Whether we are toiling in ‘labor of the field’, or in ameilus ba’Torah, one must always feel that he is erecting a sound structure, while building himself even greater, higher and stronger.

Moreover, R’ Bregman writes, “On a related note, have you ever wondered why at the Pesach seder, romaine lettuce is considered to be the ideal bitter herb for marror (see Pesachim 39a)?  We might imagine that we can readily find something even more bitter to eat!  Perhaps horseradish [would be preferred, for its sharp and bitter taste]!

“Some commentaries explain that romaine lettuce is the ideal bitter herb specifically because it has no taste.  This makes it more ideal for recalling the Egyptian enslavement than something highly bitter to the taste.  How so?  The Egyptians wanted us to have a life without ‘taste,’ as we described above, regarding the disappearing and futile storage cities of Pisom and Ramses.  Moreover, Chazal also relate that Pharaoh ordered that the enslaved Jewish men perform the work of women, and that the women perform the work of men.  All of this was done to ensure that the slaves would derive no satisfaction from their work whatsoever” (Short and Sweet on the Parsha, Feldheim, p.133-134).  

A life without purpose and meaning, a life without growth and success, a life without seeing the fruits of our labor, is a ‘tasteless’, most bitter life indeed.  Hence, romaine lettuce is the perfect bitter herb for marror on leil ha’Seder.  Even worse than tasting the bitterness of life, is tasting nothing in life at all!  Only when we work towards a goal, and can measure our accomplishments in that realm – even if they may be small, may they be steady! – only then will we feel fulfilled, satisfied, complete and redeemed.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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