Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Leaving Egypt: Purposeless Work and the Torah Portion of Shemot

This week, we start reading the Second Book of the Torah, the Book of Redemption, Exodus (Shemot, "Names" in Hebrew). It begins by listing the names of the Jewish people that descended to Egypt and then almost immediately describes how they were enslaved and how they suffered. The kind of labor the Jewish people were subjected to was called "Avodat Parech," commonly translated as "back-breaking labor," according to Rashi's explanation.

13. So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor. 14. And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks and with all kinds of labor in the fields, all their work that they worked with them with back breaking labor.

There are many explanations as to what is meant by Avodat Parech. According to Rashi, the work was simply physically hard, crushing the bodies of the Jews. According to other explanations, however, what made the labor so detrimental was that it "broke the spirit" of the Jews, in that it was often wasteful and unnecessary: men were made to do women's work and vice-versa; the cities that they built for the Egyptians were Arei Miskenot, "pitiful cities," purposefully built on sand so that they would collapse and need to be built again. This kind of work makes the slave feel that he has no purpose, that he is worthless.

Deep inside, each one of us has a yearning to feel that he or she is needed; that their task in life is worth something. If that feeling is taken away, one is left with nothing.

Why was it necessary for the Jewish people to feel this intense loss of purpose? Perhaps it would later serve as a reminder for them. Instead of being purposeless servants of the Egyptians, they would serve the ultimate purpose as servants of G-d. This brings to mind the prayer said at the time one leaves a Jewish House of Study (Beit Midrash):

What does he say when he leaves? "I am thankful to You, the Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early, and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction." (Talmud, Brachot 28b; http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/aggada/24aggada.htm)

Better to realize while still in this world that one's toil is without purpose, than to only come to that realization when it is too late to change.

More often than not, purpose is usually not contingent simply on the job itself, but also on who it is that you are serving. That is the difference between Torah and hanging around in the street corners. It is the choice between serving G-d and serving oneself.

Even the simplest job, when done with the right intention, can serve the highest of purposes. As Martin Luther King once said,  “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/21045-if-a-man-is-called-to-be-a-street-sweeper

The above also brings to mind, lehavdil, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's "Holy Hunchback," the Holocaust survivor who was a street-sweeper in Tel Aviv, and who lived the lesson he heard from his childhood Rebbe, Reb Klonymos Kalmon of Piasetzna: "Dear, sweet children, the greatest thing in the world... is to do somebody else a favor." (Listen to this very special story here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQwksf6ZslY)

The above also brings to mind Rebbe Nachman's story of the "Simpleton and the Sophisticate." While the "wise" man spent his days jumping from profession to profession because nothing was prestigious enough for him, the "simple" one was extremely happy and satisfied with much less:

The Simpleton learned how to make shoes, but because he was simple, it took him a long time before he grasped it. Indeed, he was not completely proficient in his craft, but he married and made a living from his work. ...  When he finished making a shoe, it would all too often turn out triangular as he was not fully proficient in his craft. But he would take the shoe in his hand and praise it greatly. He would take enormous delight in it, saying: "My wife, how beautiful and wonderful this shoe is. How sweet this shoe is. This shoe is pure honey and sugar!" ... He was simply filled with joy and delight at all times. (http://www.azamra.org/Essential/sophist.htm)

At the end of the day, each of us has their "calling" and purpose, their shlichut, their mission as an emissary in this world. May we all merit to realize Who sent us here, discover the work that is right for us, and stick to it long enough to see its fruit, both in this world and the World to Come.


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