(Torah Portion Va’erah) A Day Off!
Have you ever wondered how the Egyptians were able to effectively enslave the Jewish populace in Egypt?
The Torah relates that the Pharoh seeing the steep hike in the Jewish birthrate was worried that they would become a majority and powerful enough to take over the land. This claim and concern was unfounded because the Jews viewed their stay in Egypt as a temporary one, always planning to return to the Land of Israel.
How did Pharoh pull off this massive enslavement?
The Medrash relates to us that Pharoh cleverly used the Jew’s innate sense of loyalty and patriotism towards Egypt and their appreciation for absorbing and welcoming them in their land. He asked for volunteers to help with construction and they all came to contribute, working hard at it. The Pharoh himself joined in the efforts as well.
After they proved they had the skill and endurance for work, the Pharoh set up taskmasters to enforce a compulsory amount of work that they must complete. It began with the workload being rather easy and then with time it became tougher and tougher.
The Egyptians employed psychological devices as well. The Talmud relates that they had the women do men’s jobs and men do women’s jobs. Rabbi Yitzchok Dov Koppelman o.b.m. asks, what benefit did Pharoh get from reversing the male and female work and occupation, for the men were not equipped to do the women’s jobs, and the women were not cut out for strenuous construction work?
The answer is that Pharoh knew that it was impossible to enslave a people who had a good self-image and esteem; he therefore first degraded them and took away their spirit and self-value. Once that was accomplished, the Pharoh reverted to gender appropriate work in a harsh manner.
Commentators point out something interesting. Pharoh’s tactics are actually the same tactics our evil inclination continuously whispers to us in our ears and minds; “You know, you are not so perfect in your spiritual performance anyway… so whatever you are considering to do in an errant way will not negatively affect you ….or whatever you are aiming to do spiritually does not really match up with the level on which you are.”
Truth be told, each one of us has a Neshama – a soul – that emanates from G-d Himself; this elevated spirit prompt us and reminds us of our highly charge spiritual worthiness. With this heightened spiritual identity we counter our evil inclination’s entreaties.
Since the Torah was not yet given while the Jews were in Egypt, what kept them connected to their roots? Our Sages teach us that when Moshe was being raised in the Pharoh’s palace, he suggested to Pharoh that he give the Jews a day of rest so they could regain their strength. The Pharoh agreed offering to Moshe to choose which day to give them off. Moshe chose Saturday without knowing that in the future, the seventh day – Shabbos would be commanded to the Jews as a day of rest in the Ten Commandments and in the Torah.
Interestingly, years later when G-d told Moshe about the holy day and laws of Shabbos, Moshe was delighted that he had chosen that day as a day of rest in Egypt. We actually allude to Moshe’s elated feelings in our Shabbat morning prayers; “Yismach Moshe – Moshe rejoiced in the gift of his portion.”
The Medrash tells us that the Jews had ancient scrolls in their possession which described and outlined their history, ancestors and the prophesy of their destiny. On their day off, Shabbos, they would read these scrolls instilling hope in their redemption, and keeping them going.
A year before their redemption Moshe came back to Egypt to lead the Jews, providing them a certainty and realization that they would be redeemed. The Pharoh reacting to this and realizing how precious, vital and hopeful their ‘Shabbos’ day off was to them, stripped them of their day of rest and gave them a more intense and brutal workload.
In the Ten Commandments it states that Shabbos is a day of remembrance of our exodus from Egypt. The message is that after our redemption, the Jewish nation went through a transfer of ownership; from the shackles of Pharoh to the embrace of the Almighty. Through G-d’s acquisition, we became His children and He gave us the ultimate gift of freedom – a day when we are not permitted to be actively involved in creative activities – it’s called the Shabbos – where with its restrictions – we gain our physical freedom and our spiritual connectivity!
Wishing you a most enjoyable and uplifting Shabbat!
Rabbi Dovid and Malki Saks and family