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  Parashas Shemos: Crushing Labor from
Windows to the Soul - Bereishis and Shemos
A psychiatrist finds a wealth of ideas in the weekly parashah

By Rabbi Michael Bernstein M.D. 


Other Available Chapters
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Parashas Shemos: Crushing Labor

Most of us have seen construction workers doing manual labor so arduous that we might collapse after a minute or two should we attempt it. And yet, these workers are not crushed by their strenuous tasks.

Manual laborers thrive on heavy labor; often, they actually enjoy it. So how are they different from the rest of us? The answer is simple. They are not. Such is the nature of human physiognomy -- the more exercise we do the stronger we become.

With regard to the enslaved Jewish people, however, the Torah tells us (1:13): “And the Egyptians enslaved the people of Israel with perach.” What does perach mean? The Talmud explains (Sotah 11b) in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani that it means crushing labor. Rashi expresses it as “labor that breaks apart the body.” What kind of labor crushes the body? Labor doesn’t crush the body; it strengthens it.

Let us now consider another statement we find in the Talmud (ibid.). Once again, it is Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani speaking. Perach, he explains, refers to assigning women’s work to men and vice versa. At first glance, this would seem puzzling. Is it indeed so utterly difficult for men to do women’s work? Would that be considered crushing labor?

Here lies the answer. Physical labor is ordinarily not crushing. There is, however, one instance when it does crush. When the labor takes away one’s sense of self, one’s very identity, it can be devastating. And the damage is not limited to the psyche alone. It is well-documented that under such demoralizing conditions the immune system breaks down and very real physical illness results.

When a man is forced to perform women’s work, when he is made to feel he is not a man, he is humiliated and crushed. Likewise, a woman feels her selfhood eviscerated when forced to do men’s work. In such circumstances, every single act goes against the self and is filled with self-loathing. This is what the Egyptians set out to do to the Jewish people, to crush them emotionally, mentally and physically.

In this light, we gain new insight into the statement of the Torah (Leviticus 25:46), “As for your brothers, the people of Israel, you shall not encumber him with perach.” Again we come across this unusual word, perach. What does it mean here?

According to Rashi, based on Sifra, this prohibition forbids the master of a Jewish slave to give him unnecessary work, to make him work for the sake of work with no other purpose in mind. Since the master’s sole intent in assigning these superfluous labors is to demonstrate his power over his fellow Jew who had the misfortune to have become his slave, this is considered perach, crushing labor.

A master who seeks to impress a sense of inferiority upon his slave is crushing him, just as the Egyptians were crushing the Jews by denying them their sense of self.

 
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