What the Story of Exodus means in our High Pressure Times

Based on the

D’var Torah on Shemot

Given at Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY
January 5, 2002 by Theo Pavlidis

What was the form of the slavery of the Jews in Egypt? We are told that it involved forced labor building garrison cities (Ex. 1:11-14) and that later their task was made more difficult by requiring them to collect the straw for the bricks (Ex. 5: 6-18).  We are told that the foremen (lower management) were from amongst themselves. Rabbi Plaut’s commentary uses the word corvée to describe this type of forced labor. Corvée existed in Europe and the Middle East through feudal times and later. For example, it existed in Greece as late as the middle of the 19th century. It was a form of taxation in kind where a community had to provide a certain number of laborers for a given time for public works. Like any taxation, it could be light or it could be onerous. Apparently, the Jews lived by themselves and few, if any, Egyptians were amongst them. We infer this from the statement that Moses thought no one else saw him when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster (Ex. 2:12) and that the Pharaoh had to rely (although in vain) on Hebrew midwives to carry out his plan for infanticide (Ex. 1:16). Nowhere in the text there is any reference to deprivations in food or shelter. On the contrary, we have evidence from latter parts of the text (in the context of the rebellions against Moses) that material living conditions in Egypt were significantly better than later in the desert. In one place Egypt is referred to nostalgically as the place where “we ate our fill of bread” (Ex. 16:3) and in another Egypt is called the land of milk and honey (Num. 16:13).

Going to the desert was going to free the Jews from oppressive forced labor but also deprive them from certain material comforts. Do we find any parallels in this story with modern life? Obviously, we have no legally forced labor. But do we have forced labor? Do we have people working to their deaths? Apparently we do. A few months ago the New York Times had a story about a “tough” CEO of a publishing enterprise. One of his salespeople said they were working as hard as they could, but they were unable to sell advertising space because of the slow down in the economy. His answer was “I have not seen anyone dropping dead from a heart attack yet.” Some more tragic cases occurred on September 11. When the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center there were several meetings going on. When people got up to leave they were told to go back to the meeting. Clearly, something bad had happened although the extent of the damage was not known yet. The normal human reaction is to run away from a potential danger. What was so important about the meetings that people had to risk (and eventually lose) their lives by staying in these meetings?

Even if we discount such extremes as rarities, too many people today are working well beyond the level they would like. While nobody builds bricks with straw today, so no one can be deprived of straw, we have the corporate slogan: “We should do more with less.” Corporations downsize and the people left are burdened with more duties. Some of the 9 to 5 jobs are only nominally eight-hour jobs. People stay in the office much longer to “catch up with paperwork” or be available if their supervisors wants them. Add to such hours long commuting trips and we have 15-hour days. How much time such a person can spend with their family? What about a worst-case scenario when both parents in a family hold such jobs? What are the prospects for a marriage under such conditions?

Why do so many of us work so hard? Is it because we would starve or be homeless otherwise? Is it because we love work so much that we do it for the sheer pleasure of it? Either cause might be true for some people, but for many others the driving force is the pursuit of a high level of material comfort or the acquisition of a status symbol. For many of us there is a wide gap between poverty and a socially imposed standard of living. How many people buy a car as a means of transportation and how many buy a car with the additional concern to impress their friends and neighbors? How many of the latter have to make a special effort to come up with the additional funds? How many have to put in overtime, find a second job, or take a job with higher pay but with a long commute?

Modern corporations strive hard for profits and one way they achieve that is by eliminating jobs and forcing the remaining people to work harder. (No straw is provided for the bricks!) Some time ago I read a comment about a company where they had fired most of the clerical staff and highly paid engineers had to pick up their duties. This made financial sense only if the engineers put the additional time without additional compensation. Thus of us who are fortunate to have the skills to have secure jobs should be careful not go along with such schemes. I do not want to use the copying machine not because it is below my dignity or I do not want to stay half an hour later in the office, but because by performing this task I am helping eliminate the job of a poor person. I recall from another time and another country day custodians at a University who had jobs that included erasing blackboards and making sure chalk and erasers were available. That made the job of the instructors easier but that was not the main issue. Some of the day custodians were mildly retarded and several others had physical handicaps. The arrangement provided the dignity of employment to people who might not have had it otherwise.

In modern times we have abolished legal slavery, but we have slavery imposed by subtler means: the “hidden persuaders” of advertising. Such pressure reaches a paroxysm during the month of December where each year more and more expensive items are suggested as “Christmas” gifts. Jews seem to go along by simply substituting “Chanukah” for “Christmas.” Amusingly, the gift giving custom has absolutely no religious basis for anyone. It is a tradition rooted in the Roman times, when people offered officials their annual bribe on January 1. This date (rather than December 25) is still the traditional gift giving date for some of the Eastern Christians. One might say that “Christmas” gift giving is sinful (a leftover of a pagan custom), not only for Jews, but for Christians as well.

We hear often from the politicians that we need to spend in order to sustain the economy. Thus holiday shopping sprees are “good for the nation” in addition to various dubious “national defense” expenditures. If we need economic activity there are more rational expenditures than buying things we do not need. We seem to have money to spend for goods that end up unused in a storage bin rather than pay taxes for universal health care.

The lesson of the story of the Egyptian bondage of the Jews is that slavery is defined as excessive work, even when there is no material deprivation. In modern times we have opted to slave in the pursuit of dubious luxury. The price we pay for such slavery is the denial of ourselves, of our families, of our humanity. There have been several reactions to the “earn and spend” pressures; “dropping out” reached the height of its popularity in the 1960’s. Withdrawal from the “rat race” and even the world has been an underpinning of both Christian and Buddhism monasticism. But such moves exchange the slavery of overwork with the slavery of poverty. A starving person cannot be a free person.

How do we decide what is the right amount of work? Modern life is too complex to provide simple answers that have any broad validity. Not everybody has the choice. But those who do must exercise it, not only for their own sake, but also for the sake of those less fortunate.

We have to go to the desert to face God and reclaim ourselves. Where is the desert? Certainly a tour of the Sinai desert in an air-conditioned bus is not the answer. It is any place where we can be free from anything that reminds us of the extraneous pressures, a place where job titles and status symbols are meaningless. Going to a deserted beach or any place where the natural world is dominant is a good start. In such places we can make our own decisions rather than those imposed to us by various Pharaohs. But do not expect it to be easy to get away from the Pharaoh; you will have to put up a struggle.

As I conclude, I want to thank Rabbi Adam D. Fisher for his encouragement and guidance.

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