Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Parshat Va'era

"Work and Will"

There was a time in my life when I was fascinated by the works of the great psychoanalytic thinkers. Chief among them, of course, was Sigmund Freud, whose attitude towards his Jewish origins piqued my curiosity.

Although Freud’s work has now fallen out of fashion, he unquestionably had some profound things to say about humanity. There is one remark of his that has remained with me over the years. He said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” He considered the ability to love and the ability to work the two criteria of mental health.

There was a lesser-known psychoanalyst, a disciple of Freud, whose writings also fascinated me. His name was Otto Rank, and he disagreed with his mentor in many ways. He left “love” out of the formula for the healthy personality. Instead, he inserted his concept of “the will.” For him, our ability to work productively and to express our will creatively were the cornerstones of our humanness.

Rank wrote entire volumes about the nature of man’s will, and of its importance. In simplified terms, the will is the directive intention by which we get things done in life. In his words, “It is a positive guiding organization of the self which utilizes creativity” to accomplish one’s objectives.

In a much more recent time in my life, I have come to ponder the nature of spirituality. I have become convinced that ability to engage in meaningful work and the capacity to exercise one’s will creatively are two essential components of spirituality.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35), we read about the first stages of the redemption of the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. We learn that freedom from slavery does not come easily. A measure of spiritual preparedness must first be achieved.

Were the Jewish people spiritually ready for redemption? When we read last week’s parsha we were inclined to believe that they may very well have been ready. “Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses…and the people were convinced…they bowed low in homage” (Exodus 4:30-31).

This week, however, we learn that that level of spiritual readiness was short lived. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, because their spirits were crushed [literally, ‘out of shortness of breath’] and their bondage cruel [literally, ‘out of difficult labor’]” (Exodus 6:9).

Two factors stood in their way. “Their spirits were crushed.” In Otto Rank’s terms, their “will” was crippled. They could not dream, they could not plan, and they could not utilize their creativity. In no way could they “get things done” in their lives. A person without will is a person paralyzed. Such a person cannot transition from slavery to freedom.

Their “bondage was cruel.” Freud was correct that productive work was one of the “cornerstones of humanness”. Meaningful work nourishes the soul. But the work that the Jews were forced to do in Egypt was far from meaningful. Besides being physically tortuous, it was purposeless. Our Sages teach us that the labor that Egypt forced the Jews to do was not only unbearably strenuous; it was belittling and demeaning. Such work is poison for the soul, and a poisoned soul is not ready for redemption.

Pharaoh knew all too well how to thwart the initiative of his slaves, how to assure that they would take no effective steps to attain their freedom. “Let heavier work be laid upon the men; let them keep at it and not pay attention to deceitful promises” (Exodus 5:9).

Denied the access to their creative will and deprived of the rewards of meaningful work, the Jews were spiritually handicapped. They could not hear the words spoken to them by Moses—not because their hearing was impaired, but because they were spiritually deaf. Moses had his work cut out for him, and only with Divine assistance could he hope to advance his people to the point where they would be ready to hear the clarion call of incipient redemption.

There is a lesson here for all of us. We too are deaf to God’s redemptive messages. Our spiritual condition is woefully inadequate to prepare us to hear higher callings.

Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto puts it so well in the second chapter of his Mesillat Yesharim: “This is, in fact, one of the cunning artifices of the evil inclination, who always imposes upon men such strenuous tasks that they have no time left to note whither they are drifting. He knows that, if they were to pay the least attention to their conduct, they would at once reconsider what they were doing… This ingenuity is somewhat like that of Pharaoh… for Pharaoh’s purpose was not only to prevent the Israelites from having any leisure to make plans or take counsel against him, but to deprive them also of the very opportunity to reflect.”

Nowadays, it is as if each of us has an “inner Pharaoh” whose malicious intent it is to entrap us into a lifestyle where we not only overwork, but where our work is unfulfilling and, therefore, spiritually unrewarding. This “inner Pharaoh” is also shrewd enough to know how to stunt that creative human will that is such an essential component of spirituality.

Mankind’s struggle against “crushed spirits” and “cruel burdens” is a historical struggle, one that is certainly relevant in our times. There are obstacles to finding and defining a work-life that is meaningful. There are impediments to our ability to exercise our creative wills. But we must use whatever tools are at our disposal to lift those cruel burdens and free our crushed spirits. Those tools include introspective reflection, contemplation of pertinent religious texts, conversation with like-minded friends, and dialogue with experienced spiritual mentors.

There are many practical lessons to be garnered from the story of the Exodus. Passover is, of course, the occasion on the calendar for reflecting upon that story. But at this wintry time of year, with the springtime Passover festival still long months away, a careful reading of the weekly Torah portion will serve to motivate us to strive to learn those lessons.