By Rav David Silverberg
We read in Parashat Shemot of Pharaoh’s harsh response to Moshe and Aharon when they first appeared before him to demand permission for Benei Yisrael to leave Egypt. Pharaoh reacted by significantly intensifying Benei Yisrael’s workload, forcing them to fetch their own straw with which to produce bricks.
This new decree was enacted for the purpose of denying Benei Yisrael the opportunity to harbor thoughts of leaving, as Pharaoh himself announced: “The labor shall be intensified upon the people and they shall engage in it rather than involve themselves in matters of falsehood” (5:9). Rashi explains this to mean that the people would be unable to give any time or attention to the idea of leaving Egypt to bring sacrifices to God, as Moshe had demanded. Several Midrashic sources (including the Tanchuma, 7:6) explain a bit differently, that Benei Yisrael had scrolls which they would joyfully read and study each Shabbat in Egypt. The extra workload was imposed in order to deny them this delight which kept their spirits up and gave them hope amid the anguish of bondage. According to both interpretations, Pharaoh intensified the slaves’ pressure so they would have neither the time nor the peace of mind to rejuvenate and dream of a happier future.
Rav Mendel of Rimonov added further insight into Pharaoh’s plan, noting that the king ordered his men, “Lo tosifun la-teit teven la-am” – “You shall no longer continue giving the people straw” (5:7). The word “tosifun,” Rav Mendel of Rimonov observed, can be read as a derivative of the verb a.s.f. – “gather,” or “assemble.” Pharaoh’s intent, or part of his intent, was to prevent Benei Yisrael from gathering and assembling together. He astutely recognized the power exerted by the positive energy of groups. When Benei Yisrael assembled to discuss their plight and reflect on their hopes for the future, they received encouragement, inspiration and reassurance – precisely the feelings that Pharaoh set out to eliminate from Benei Yisrael’s hearts. Indeed, the Torah describes how Benei Yisrael “scattered about” throughout Egypt in their frantic quest for straw (“va-yafetz ha-am” – 5:12). This description might allude to the discontinuation of gatherings, and indicates that Pharaoh’s edict achieved his desired goal of breaking Benei Yisrael’s spirits by breeding feelings of isolation and loneliness, as the people could no longer join together to build their hope and optimism.
This Chassidic reading of the verses reminds us of the collective power of a group, which far exceeds the sum total of all its individual parts. When we come together in joy, harmony and unity, we are far better equipped to meet the challenges that we face and triumph over adversity. As Pharaoh correctly understood, our joining together with our fellow Jews has the ability to keep our spirits high even in trying times, and enables us to succeed and prosper regardless of the circumstances.
Originally appears on VBM