Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
Once Slaves in Egypt, Now Servants of God
A pivotal moment in the story of Exodus is when Pharaoh agrees to free the Israelites from centuries of servitude. With their request finally granted, the people rush into the wilderness, through the Reed Sea and toward Mt. Sinai. The acceptance of God as Master and the extensive commandments in the Torah, though, did not come without their own restrictions. Was this not just a transition from one master to another, a journey between different types o
f servitude? The answer is yes, however, the new system was incomparable to the old.
In Egypt, the Israelite slaves are encouraged by Moses to be optimistic about their potential future. However, the Torah tells us that ‘they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work.’ (Exodus 6:9) The trying conditions and intense physical workload to which they were subject reduced their ability to see any hope beyond their immediate challenges. Their predicament was purposely worsened by Pharoah:
On that day Pharaoh ordered the taskmasters over the people and its foremen, saying, ‘you shall no longer give straw to the people to manufacture the bricks as yesterday and before yesterday; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the quota of bricks that they were making yesterday you shall impose upon them – do not reduce it…’
Pharoah’s goal was to lumber his slaves with a workload so heavy and all-encompassing in order to ensure the possibility of things changing or improving would never even cross their minds.
Western society has long compelled us to work so hard and for such long hours that in some senses we become enslaved. The desire to seek a comfortable lifestyle for oneself and one’s family can quickly turn into a desperate climb atop the corporate ladder of success. In Japan, a country famous for its intensive working culture, there is even a specific term – karoshi – used to refer to the horrific concept of “death from overwork.” This example, although extreme, illustrates how we can live to work, rather than work to live.
For many, the last year has shattered long-held paradigms relating to our professional lives. The move to teleworking and flexible hours has enabled millions to spend more time at home with family, instead of hours commuting. The terrifying unpredictability of the coronavirus has also seen many of us pause and reflect on what’s really important in our fragile lives. Our appreciation of the importance of health, family and friends, often overlooked in the rush of working life, has been strengthened.
However, this has not universally been the case. The pressures on parents juggling the demands of young housebound children with full-time occupations and the anxiety of this period has seen many to work and be a parent both day and night. Remote working both frees us from our commutes and 9-5 office hours, but also means that the working day sometimes never stops. This marks a new form of servitude for some and extends an existing disposition for others.
The Israelite slaves in Egypt were subject to Pharoah’s excessive demands that were designed to ensure they lost sight of the more valuable facets of life or thought beyond their day-to-day. Unlike our ancestors, we are fortunate today to be unshackled by the traditional chains of servitude. Nonetheless, to a certain degree, many of us are still enslaved to the pursuit of professional success at great cost to other areas of our lives. Personal drive, self-induced pressure and competition have become the Pharaoh of today, the master we serve and an additional exodus we can experience at the seder. Since we will all become a slave to something, we must choose what we serve. To be a servant of God is to be free from the confinements of this world, helping us to achieve the self-awareness that acknowledges and transcends our limitations by identifying with that which has none – the Infinite. Those who serve an existential Master are never really bound by the physical world, as their true essence lies in that which will, so to speak, outlive them. By serving our Creator, we are liberated from the constructs of society that sometimes guide us along a path to self-enslavement. To be a servant of God – an eved Hashem – is the means by which we can elevate ourselves from Homo sapiens into human beings, serving not as a restrictive title, but a key to emancipation.