We were freed from Egypt thousands of years ago, but so many of us are still “enslaved.”  Sadly, slavery is as much a part of Jewish life today in the 21st century as it was in ancient Egypt – only contemporary slavery is, to a large extent, self-imposed.

Our tradition, for good reason, views the Biblical Pharaoh with contempt.  He was a cruel, heartless tyrant who enslaved our ancestors and slaughtered their infants.  But although he was ruthless and evil, Pharaoh was not a fool.  It is difficult to imagine a person without intelligence ruling effectively over such a large and impressive empire as ancient Egypt.  And thus our sages and commentators who interpreted the story of the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus set out to explain Pharaoh’s decisions and conduct.  Their working assumption was that he was an intelligent strategist who carefully devised his nefarious schemes, and so it behooves us to try to understand why he acted as he did.

Indeed, Pharaoh’s handling of Beneh Yisrael gives rise to many questions.  Here, we will focus our attention on one small decision made by Pharaoh which may seem trivial, but in truth – and ironically – conveys a message that is especially relevant in today’s world.

When Moshe and Aharon first approached Pharaoh to demand that he release the Israelite slaves, he not only flatly refused, but also expressed outrage over this “freedom movement.”  He sharply condemned Moshe and Aharon for disrupting the people’s work by rallying for the cause of freedom: “Why do you, Moshe and Aharon, disturb the people from their work?!” (Shemot 5:4).  The  king then issued strict orders to increase the people’s workload by forcing them to collect their own straw.  The slaves were assigned the task of producing bricks from straw, and until this point, the Egyptian officials provided the slaves with the straw they needed.  Now, however, the slaves were told to find their own straw but produce the same daily quota of bricks.  This marked a sharp turning point in Beneh Yisrael’s suffering, transforming a dreadful condition into an intolerable one.

The question needs to be asked, what was Pharaoh’s rationale in issuing this edict?  While we are not surprised by his cruelty and heartlessness, we might question why he undertook such a measure.  What did he seek to accomplish?  If he was disturbed by the people’s quest for freedom, why did he make their situation worse?  Didn’t he realize that intensified suffering would intensify the slaves’ determination to achieve freedom?

Shabbat and the Point of No Return

The scholars of Kabbalah teach that just as the physical body can become sick and dysfunctional to the “point of no return,” where it can no longer be resuscitated, the same is true of the human spirit.  Although we are all endowed with the extraordinary ability to repent and recover from our sins, there is a “point of no return.”  Although the Jewish people have never reached this point, we once found ourselves at the edge of this cliff.  During the period of Egyptian bondage, Beneh Yisrael sank to what the Kabbalists call the “49th gate of impurity.”  Submerged in the spiritually suffocating environment of Egypt, which was awash with idolatry and moral decadence, and forced to spend their days in the mud pits, the nation’s soul was all but dormant for over two centuries.  If they had sunk one level lower, to the 50th “gate,” they would have never recovered.  Gd had to bring the redemption when He did because otherwise, the people would have crossed the threshold to the 50th level of impurity, from which they could not ever return.

But what prevented the people from crossing that threshold?  Was it simply a matter of timing, that they were rescued at the final moment?  What had kept them above the 50th level for 210 years?  How did they stay afloat over the course of such a long, grueling exile?

The Midrash relates that before Moshe demanded that Pharaoh free Beneh Yisrael, he made one suggestion which the king accepted: that they receive one free day a week.  He drew Pharaoh’s attention to the fact that the slaves could work far more productively if they are given some time to relax and rejuvenate.  Pharaoh agreed, and Beneh Yisrael were given Shabbat as their “weekend.”  The Midrash proceeds to tell that Beneh Yisrael spent their weekly off-day studying scrolls which they received from their forebears.  Although the Torah as we know it had yet to be given, there was still a good deal of knowledge which the patriarchs studied and taught, and much of this information was recorded in scrolls.  Beneh Yisrael preserved this material throughout the Egyptian exile, and when Shabbat became a free day, they utilized the time to study these scrolls.

This is how they managed to avoid slipping into the 50th and final level of impurity.  They spent six days a week in the mud pits, engaged in mundane work and exposed to Egyptian culture, but one day a week they were able to bask in the glow of kedushah and nourish their souls.  And this is how they were spiritually sustained.

A Nation of Workaholics

The Sefer Hahinuch, an anonymous work which lists and discusses the 613 Biblical commands, establishes the famous rule that “ahareh hamaasim nimshachim halevavot – the hearts are drawn after the actions.”  We are affected by the things we do.  The Sefer Hahinuch explains that if a habitually evil person engages in some kind of positive activity, he is impacted by the experience.  Something changes inside his heart.  Although he will not likely appear fully transformed, his soul is affected and seeds for change are planted within his being.  But the converse is also true.  The Sefer Hahinuch writes that if an inherently righteous individual gets involved in “dofi” – foolish, silly matters, even if the activity is not necessarily evil, the experience negatively affects him.  His spiritual standing is compromised to one extent or another through his involvement in vanity.

Shabbat rescued Beneh Yisrael in Egypt.  Throughout the week, they were involved in “dofi,” in mundane, unholy work, and were exposed to Egyptian beliefs and values.  This regular activity left a profound, negative impact upon their souls.  But on Shabbat, they were given the opportunity to engage in something meaningful.  Shabbat provided a respite from the mud pits for both their bodies and their souls.  They experienced a period of physical rest, but also of spiritual rejuvenation, fortifying their souls so they would not break during the coming workweek.  In this way, they were able to avoid falling into the abyss of the 50th “gate.”

Pharaoh’s plan, the Midrash explains, was to deny Beneh Yisraelthis opportunity.  After Moshe and Aharon petitioned Pharaoh to release the slaves, the king proclaimed, “The labor shall be intensified upon the people so they do it and not engage in false matters” (Shemot 5:9).  The purpose of this decree was to turn Beneh Yisraelinto a nation of workaholics.  By forcing the slaves to fetch straw, Pharaoh ensured that they would be laboring nonstop, seven days a week, with no time for anything else.  In this way, he figured, Beneh Yisraelwould fall into the 50th level of impurity and no longer have any hope of redemption.  If they never had a break, if they were so pressured and overburdened by work that they had no time for spiritual rejuvenation, their spirits would be extinguished, and the final sparks of kedushahwould die.

Pharaoh’s efforts, of course, were thwarted by Gd’s miraculous intervention, which forced him to relent and free Beneh Yisraelbefore they reached the point of no return.  But his strategy was right on target.  As we said from the outset, Pharaoh was intelligent and knew a good deal about Beneh Yisrael.  As such, we have a good deal to learn from him.

Workaholicism is spiritually dangerous.  Spending time working is like spending time underwater; it can be beneficial and enjoyable, but we need to come up for air.  “Ahareh hamaasim nimshachim halevavot.”  If we spend all our time working, our souls are dulled.  We need to recharge our spiritual batteries, to give our souls a “boost” so we remain afloat during the time spent in the workplace.  If all we do is work, the kedushah within us will dissipate and eventually disappear.

The Gift of Shabbat

Pharaoh was absolutely correct: Shabbat is what protects the Jewish People from spiritual oblivion.  No matter what kind of society we’ve lived in, we have always guarded ourselves by retreating into a cocoon of spirituality each week on Shabbat, when we sought refuge from outside pressures and influences.  It may be no exaggeration to say that Shabbat has been the single most important asset for us throughout our two millennia of exile.  On Shabbat, we take out our “scrolls” and enter a different realm, where we receive the fortification we need for the coming week.

This is why in our Shabbat prayers we refer to Shabbat as “zecher liytziat Mitzrayim – a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.”  This description is based upon the Ten Commandments (in Devarim), where the command of Shabbat observance is explained as serving to commemorate our nation’s experiences in Egypt.  How does Shabbat commemorate the Exodus?  How does Shabbat observance remind us of our ancestors’ bondage and subsequent departure from Egypt?

The answer is that Shabbat reminds us of how we survived those 210 years of slavery, that it was through the weekly “breath of fresh air” that we avoided complete spiritual demise.  Our observance of Shabbat is modeled after the Shabbat in Egypt, when the slaves were able to cleanse themselves, at least partially, from the contamination that accumulated during the workweek.  This has always been the purpose (or one of the purposes) of Shabbat.  It redirects our attention from the “mud pits” of the workweek onto loftier and more meaningful pursuits.

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat tells the famous story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who fled from the Roman authorities and spent twelve years hiding in a cave, studying Torah the entire time.  When he finally emerged from the cave, Rabbi Shimon saw people involved in agriculture, tending to their fields.  Rabbi Shimon looked at them with astonishment, unable to understand how people could choose to engage in mundane affairs at the expense of Torah study.  Wherever he set his eyes, the Gemara says, a fire broke out.  Gd then ordered Rabbi Shimon back into the cave for another year.  When he emerged, it was Friday afternoon, and he saw a man running with two bundles of hadasim.  Rabbi Shimon asked the man what he was doing, and the man explained that Shabbat was coming, and he was bringing home two bundles of flowers in honor of Shabbat, corresponding to zachor and shamor(the two terms used by the Torah in issuing the command of Shabbat observance).  After hearing this, Rabbi Shimon was able to remain out of the cave without setting the world ablaze.

When Rabbi Shimon saw Jews observing Shabbat, he was no longer perturbed by their involvement in mundane affairs.  As long as they spend one day rejuvenating, directing their attention to spiritual matters, they are able to spend time tilling the land during the other six days.

21st-Century Pharaohs

Sadly, slavery is as much a part of Jewish life today in the 21st century as it was in ancient Egypt – only contemporary slavery is, to a large extent, self-imposed.

Let’s not fool ourselves.  Both as individuals and as a society, we are enslaved.  Many people are, tragically, slaves to their addictions, trapped in destructive behavior that ruins their bodies, their souls and their families, and from which they cannot escape.  Many others are addicted to media and entertainment, unable to pull themselves away from the television or the computer screen.  Children and even adults waste countless hours playing video games or browsing the internet.  Even if we ignore the negative content on the internet (something which we obviously mustn’t ignore, but this is for a separate discussion), we cannot overlook the effect of the “dofi,” of spending so many hours involved in nonsense.  For many, the internet has become a dangerous obsession that has ruined their careers, marriages and families, simply by the amount of time it consumes.  And although we do not have a Pharaoh ordering us to spend our days in the mud pits, people’s jobs and businesses have assumed this role, overtaking people’s lives and preventing them from engaging in loftier, more meaningful activities.

I once stepped into a certain store in Manhattan that sells dolls, and I was astonished by what I saw.  There was a long line with mothers and children – including numerous observant Jews – bringing their dolls to the store’s “beauty salon.”  That’s right, mothers bring their daughters to give in their dolls to have their hair done – for $50.  Other dolls were being brought to the “doll hospital” for “treatment.”  Isn’t this a form of slavery?  If parents feel they must pay their hard-earned money so their daughter’s doll could have its hair done, are they not slaves to their society?

But perhaps the most overbearing modern-day Pharaohs are our gadgets, the phones, tablets  and other devices that  constantly beep and buzz and demand our attention at all times of the day and night.  Pharaoh would likely have been very gratified to know about these devices, which might be achieving his goal far more effectively than he could have imagined.  For many of us, this constant distraction makes it all but impossible to focus our attention on Torah, prayer, family, hesed, and other vitally important areas of life which become neglected.  How many of us can honestly deny being a slave to electronic devices?

It might be said that Shabbat has never played a more vital role in Jewish life than in our time.  On Shabbat, we are given the opportunity to disconnect, to put away our gadgets and computers and take out our “scrolls.”  We are able to spend more time praying, studying, singing, and being with our families, without the constant distractions of calls, emails, texts and tweets.  For one day a week, we are able to free ourselves and focus on what’s really important in life.  As was the case in Egypt, Shabbat holds the key to victory over the “Pharaohs” that enslave us.

A man once asked me if he is allowed to set his television on a timer so he can watch a program on Shabbat.  The answer to this question is that setting one’s television on a timer for Shabbat is in direct contradistinction to everything Shabbat is supposed to be.  Even if somebody can justify watching television during the week (another topic that deserves a separate discussion), Shabbat is the time to free oneself from everything the television represents.  It is the one day when we are to avoid the distractions of society so we can focus on the important things in life.  Setting a television on a timer for Shabbat would be like a Hebrew slave asking Pharaoh for permission to work in the mud pits on Shabbat when he was excused from labor.

When Shabbat ends, we eat the melaveh malka meal to “escort” Shabbat and extend its spiritual power into the workweek.  The freedom we experience on Shabbat should affect the way we conduct ourselves during the workweek, and remind us to avoid falling into the trap of “slavery.”  Yes, we live in a busy, pressured, fast-paced world.  Nevertheless, let us try to remain focused on what is important, and not allow the modern-day “Pharaohs” to “enslave” us more than they have to.  Let us make time for the “scrolls,” for the truly meaningful aspects of life, and ensure that we remain free to pursue and achieve worthwhile and important goals.