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
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.