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 doesnt crush the body; it strengthens
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 womens work to men and vice versa. At first glance, this would seem puzzling. Is it indeed so utterly difficult for men to do womens 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 ones sense of self, ones 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 womens 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 mens 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 masters 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.