Commentary For Shemot

31 Dec

Last week’s parshah seemed to give us something of a happy ending, with Joseph and his brothers reconciled, and the Israelite family all living happily together in Egypt, with Joseph as the second most powerful person in the most powerful country in the world. This week we learn that things didn’t go so well after that, with Joseph’s contribution to Egypt’s survival being either forgotten or erased, until a newly-ascended Pharaoh decided that the Israelites were too much of a threat should they decide to rise up against Egypt, so he enslaved and oppressed them.

 

While the exact nature of most of the hardships placed upon the Israelites by the Egyptians is kept vague in the text (though it is later expounded on by the Rabbis of the Mishnah), the two that are specifically mentioned are the murder of male Israelite babies, and the building of two cities for Pharaoh, named Pitom and Ramses, and “harsh labor with mortar and with bricks, and with all the tasks of the field (Ex. 1:14).” As we find out towards the end of the parshah in chapter five, this included the Israelites being forced to make the very bricks they would be forced to use in the construction of Pharaoh’s projects.

 

Despite being an important construction material in the ancient world, the words “brick” or “bricks” (“le’veinah”/”le’veinim”) appears very few times in the Torah. Almost all of those are in this week’s parshah, with the only two that aren’t being in the story of the Tower of Babel at the beginning of Genesis 11. In that story, humanity wanted to build a tower to Heaven and make war on God. When Moses comes to Pharaoh and tells him that God says he must let the Israelites go free, Pharaoh, too, tries to go to war with God by proving his own power.

 

The idea of trying to go to war with God seems ridiculous to us. We are mere mortals and God is our omnipotent Creator. How could anyone think they would stand a chance?

 

Bricks are an artificial construction material. They are not animal products or things you find on trees or in the ground. They are things that we humans make by mixing different things together to make something new. The people of Babel wanted to use this material that they had made to build a grandiose monument to their own ability. Likewise, Pharaoh had others use these artificial materials for him to build cities for him- one of which he even named after himself or one of his ancestors. The people of Babel would look at their tower and say “look at this amazing thing we are creating. Look at how great we are!” while Pharaoh would look at his cities and say “look at what I have created! How great and powerful I am!”

 

And in their self-aggrandizing revelry, they forgot one extremely important fact: none of this would have been possible without God. It was God who created the raw materials from which they build their bricks, the land upon which they build their buildings, and it was God who created them themselves to have these ideas in the first place. Because they ignored God’s hand in their own works, they saw these works as purely their own creations, and by doing so, they made themselves gods in their own minds. Thus, when the time came, they foolishly believed that they could defeat God, and thus came their downfall.

 

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s achievements. Humility is a virtue, but excess humility can be a bane. In our pride, though, we must remember that God is a partner in our accomplishments, for without God, none of them would be possible.

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