Lo sosifun laseis teven la’am lilbon ha’leveinim kismol shilshom (5:7)
The Torah records that after Moshe and Aharon approached Pharaoh and demanded that he allow his Jewish slaves to go to the wilderness to rejoice with Hashem, Pharaoh got angry and claimed that the Jews were being lazy. He decided to give them more work in order to keep them busy, so he declared that from that point onward, the Jewish slaves would no longer receive straw to use to make bricks and would have to gather their own straw. At the same time, Pharaoh didn’t want to lose out on their productivity, so he demanded that they continue to make the same number of bricks as before, even though they would now have to spend extra time and energy gathering straw.
Harav Yochanan Zweig asks an interesting question: if Pharaoh wanted to punish the Jewish slaves with additional work, why did he keep their quota the same while making them work harder to get straw? Why did he not, rather, continue to give them straw but order them to produce a larger quantity of bricks? That would serve the goal of making them work harder but would seemingly be better for Pharaoh, as he would get more output from them.
Rav Zweig answers that Pharaoh understood that even though the Jewish slaves had been physically occupied until now, their request to go to the desert to serve Hashem revealed that internally, they were still free and were able to reflect in their minds upon their spiritual plight. He realized that if he simply ordered them to work harder on a physical level, it would be more physically draining, but the mental freedom they possessed would continue to be off-limits to him.
Instead, in his wickedness, Pharaoh came up with a plan which would require the Jewish slaves to work harder not just physically, but also mentally. By not giving them straw and demanding that they find it themselves, Pharaoh was setting up a system which would force them to devote additional mental energy to their work. This, he hoped, would result in his total control not only over their bodies, but also over their minds.
The Mesillas Yesharim writes that the yetzer hara realizes that if we would ever pause to reflect for even a brief moment on its techniques, we would immediately recognize it for what it is and stop listening to it. Therefore, an integral part of its strategy is to keep us so overwhelmingly busy that we never get a chance to stop and think. Just as Rav Zweig explains, the Mesillas Yesharim adds that this is exactly what Pharaoh was trying to do when he ordered the Jewish slaves to find straw in an attempt to take away from them the ability to think for themselves.
Even though we’re not slaves to Pharaoh today, most of us still aren’t free to choose how we spend much of our time. Each of us has various obligations and responsibilities to our families and to our jobs. Nevertheless, the lesson of Pharaoh’s diabolical plan is that the definition of freedom isn’t how much time we have for ourselves, but how well we use it. Even though we have many demands on our time that require our constant focus and concentration, the Mesillas Yesharim and Rav Zweig teach us that we are only considered free if we are able to carve out the time and mental space to think for ourselves.
Parashah Q & A
Q: Rashi writes (1:21) that because the midwives Yocheved and Miriam feared Hashem, He rewarded them by making them the matriarchs of the dynasties of kohanim, leviim and kings. How can this be reconciled with the Talmudic maxim (Kiddushin 39b) that Hashem doesn’t give reward in this world for the good deeds that a person does?
Q: In asking permission from Yisro to return to Egypt (4:18), why did Moshe say that he wanted to go back to see if his brethren are still alive instead of the truth, that Hashem had appeared to him and commanded him to do so?
A: Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explains that in order for the kohanim and leviim to serve effectively in the Beis Hamikdash and as teachers of the nation, they needed to possess love for their fellow Jews, a willingness to sacrifice on their behalf, and fear of Hashem. Similarly, in order for a king to successfully lead the nation, he must recognize the consequences of his rulings and decisions, and he must excel in his fear of Hashem (Devarim 17:19).
Yocheved and Miriam displayed abundant devotion to their fellow Jews in helping them give birth and demonstrated their fear of Hashem when they risked their lives in defiance of Pharaoh’s orders to kill the male babies. As a result, it was only fitting that the kohanim, leviim, and kings should inherit these traits by being descended from them.
A: The Midrash HaGadol maintains that Hashem only promised to redeem the Jews from Egypt on the condition that they do teshuvah for their sins. Moshe was afraid to tell Yisro that Hashem was sending him to Egypt to free the Jews because of the possibility that they would refuse to repent and wouldn’t be worthy of redemption, in which case Hashem’s promise would appear false to Yisro.
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh writes that Moshe didn’t reveal the true purpose of his trip to Yisro because Hashem hadn’t instructed him to relate the mission to others, and unless a person is given permission to share private information with others, he is forbidden to do so. Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, suggests that Moshe was concerned that Yisro would not be able to fathom the possibility that a single person is capable of redeeming an entire nation from enslavement and would not give him permission to go.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.