Experiencing Slavery in Egypt

    April 2009 Passover Edition            
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Slave for a Day

By Mendel Weinberger

Well, it's that time of year again. It's time to turn over the house and scrub down the walls and cupboards. It's time to put aside enough money to pay for wine, matzot, and a week's worth of groceries kosher for Passover. Ho, hum I'm so tired of this. I've got to get out the old Haggadas and try to think of some way to make the seder interesting, so the kids don't fall asleep and the adults don't fill the table with meaningless chatter. So what's it going to be? Another year of going through the motions on seder night and looking forward to the trip with the kids on chol hamoed as the real thing? With that kind of cynical attitude I knew I had to do the one thing that pulls me up and out, and that is to call my friend Uri.

I dialed his number and when he answered, his voice sounded far away. I asked him where he was and he said he was on a business trip in South America and would be back in Israel in a week's time. I told him how I was feeling and he was silent for a few moments. Then he told me to find this obscure book called Omek Hagalus and read up on what exile really means. And the second bit of advice was to go for long walks in the desert. It would do my soul good. I hung up the phone with a bit of hope and thought of some good places to walk until he got back.

I scoured the old bookstores in Mea Shearim looking for the book Omek Hagalus without much luck. Then one day when I happened to be late for the afternoon prayer, I ducked into a small shul in Geulah. After praying I decided to stay until the evening prayers, so I sat down near the bookshelves and looked through the books of commentaries on the Book of Exodus. An old beaten up book smaller than the rest caught my eye. I pulled it out and looked on the cover to see the title. There was none so I opened it up to the first page and read the title – Omek Hagalus. I nearly jumped out of my skin. This was the book Uri told me to read so I sat there for three hours devouring every word. Then the gabai (beadle) came around and told me he was locking up the shul so I had to leave. I returned the next day and read some more. The chapter entitled What is a Slave? really opened my eyes.

I learned that slavery is not just being sold to a master who takes over your life and tells you what to do. That would be a case where your master owns your body, but your mind, heart and soul still belong to you. A deeper state of slavery is when a person sells himself and gives up responsibility for his life. The reasons why a person might do this might be for financial gain, love, a feeling of security, or of being needed. He might be afraid of taking charge of his life and would rather remain an emotional child his whole life in order to feel safe. The author gave examples from the Bible to support his idea. After Joseph and the other sons of Jacob died, the faith of the Children of Israel began to weaken. Pharaoh's great project of building the cities of Pitom and Ramses inspired many of them. When they were recruited, many of the men went gladly eager to be a part of this grand, national endeavor. Though the work was hard, they felt it was a way to show their gratitude to their host. But as time went on the work became more and more burdensome and many just gave up any thought of relief. Their identity as free men became weaker and weaker and many began worshipping the Egyptian gods. They became not only physical slaves but gave up their minds and hearts as well. That was the depth of the exile in Egypt.

When I got home that night I called Uri. He had just returned from South America and I excitedly told him what I had learned. We made a date to meet the next day to discuss it. I met him the next morning at the Holy Bagel coffee shop on Jaffa Road near the Central Bus Station. He was waiting at a table in the corner and smiled at me when I arrived. I ordered a whole wheat bagel with cheese, onions, and tomatoes, and a cup of coffee. I washed my hands and sat down to eat while he sipped a bottle of mineral water. He appeared to be deep in thought. I started to tell him about the book Omek Hagalus but he shook his head and told me not to talk while eating because I could choke on my food. So I slowed down and waited until I had finished my meal. I took a sip of coffee and began to speak. Uri listened attentively to my explanation of exile and nodded several times in agreement.

When I finished he said, "Now that you have this understanding of the exile, will your Passover Seder be more meaningful? And will you be able to transmit that meaning to your children?"

"Well," I answered. "I have a better understanding of exile, but I don't really feel it in my life. I've never actually been a slave or been in jail so all my knowledge is basically intellectual."

"Would you like to know first hand what it means to be a slave?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

I knew what he was getting at and my curiosity was piqued. But at the same time I felt a twinge of fear bubbling up in my stomach.

"Sure, Uri," I said. "If I was a slave, then I would really appreciate freedom, wouldn't I?"

Uri looked at me and smiled. "I think I can arrange it," he said. "Meet me tomorrow at my house at 8 am, and don't be late."

I returned home with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The next day I prayed with the sunrise prayer service and told my wife I had to spend the day researching an essay I was writing on Passover. I was on a bus by 7:30 headed for Bait Vegan. I arrived at Uri's house by eight as he had instructed me. I knocked on his door and when he opened it I was struck by his appearance. He was wearing a long beige tunic tied at the waist and a white kafiah (head scarf) like the old Arabs wear.

"How do you like it?" he said. "I got it on sale after Purim and it's just right for Egypt. I got one for you too."

"Egypt!" I said. "We're going to Egypt?"

"Where else?" Uri answered. "You said you wanted to know what it's like to be a slave. So why not go to the source?"

He took off his costume and put it in a bag with mine and we went out to his car. He drove for about twenty-five minutes south of Jerusalem and stopped before a sign that read Mabuah Spring.

"Take off your clothes and put these on," he said handing me my tunic and headdress. "We will need to blend in right away."

I took the garments, quickly undressed and put them on. Uri did the same and we both got out of the car.

"How are we going to get to Egypt from here?" I asked.

"I'm glad you asked me that question," he said. "You see all bodies of water are connected in the fourth dimension. So when you enter into one with the right intention, you can come out in another body of water and in another time. We are both going to immerse in this spring with the intention of emerging in the Nile River near the city of Ramses in the year 2448 Jewish Standard Year. Are you ready?"

I nodded but inside I was shaking. We followed a narrow path for about fifty meters and came to an opening where the spring formed a pool about 10 meters across. We took off our shoes and Uri handed me a pair of leather sandals. He had an identical pair and we both put them on. He took my hand and we waded into the water until we were chest deep. The water was ice cold.

"Now repeat after me and then we will both immerse in the spring. With G-d's help we will come out in the Nile."

He looked at me with a piercing gaze and said, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt".

I said it after him and then Uri put his hand on my shoulder and we both immersed in the cold spring water. It seemed to me we were under for a long time and I felt the water gradually become warmer. There was a strong current pulling at me. Uri tapped me on the shoulder and we both stood up. The bright sunshine blinded me for a moment when I opened my eyes. I looked around me. We were on the edge of a wide river. I saw ancient boats being paddled by bare-chested men in loincloths. They looked at us while they paddled but didn't take much notice. Uri told me to quickly climb up to the shore. Our clothes were dripping wet but the hot sun and dry air immediately started drying them. A couple of young girls came down to the water's edge with buckets and filled them with water. One of them spoke to me in Egyptian asking me if I would lift up the long bamboo branch she had tied her buckets to and put it on her shoulders. I understood every word and wondered to myself how I knew Egyptian all of a sudden. I nodded and lifted up the heavy weight amazed that a girl of only about ten years old could carry it.

"How is it that I know Egyptian?" I asked Uri.

"The water of the Nile carries the Egyptian culture and since we travelled here via the Nile in the fourth dimension, we immediately absorbed the language of the land."

Uri indicated that we should begin walking along the riverside. We passed some fisherman with nets pulling big fish out of the water and I smiled remembering the Nile Perch my wife had prepared for lunch yesterday. Further on we saw some women washing clothes by soaking them in the water and them slapping them against the flat rocks on the riverbank. I stopped to watch them.

Suddenly a wagon pulled up and stopped in front of us. Two strong white stallions were hitched to what looked like a bamboo cage on wheels with about twenty bearded men sitting crowded together in it. I knew they were Jews. In front outside the cage sat two clean shaven men with long straight black hair. One held the reins and the other was a big, broad shouldered man with a cruel face. He called out to us.

"Ho, you two Hebrews, what are you doing here?" he said.

I was at a loss for words and looked to Uri but he was staring at the ground. I had to think fast.

"Uh, we came to the river the catch some fish," I said.

The big Egyptian smiled and started to laugh at me. "That's a good joke", he said. "Did you hear what he said Donkor? He said they were fishermen. I guess he doesn't know only native Egyptians may fish the Nile."

I felt my face flush and before I could reply he spoke again. "We need two more Hebrew slaves for our work crew. You two look like strong and able bodies. You will do just fine."

He climbed down from the wagon and approached us. He carried a long leather whip in his hand and wore a short sword on his belt. The second Egyptian circled behind us. I nudged Uri in the ribs but he just looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. By now a crowd of Egyptians had gathered around us and they didn't look very friendly.

"Well," said the man. "Are you coming with us? Unless that is, you have something better to do."

He laughed again. I looked around me and weighed my options. We could try to make a run for it but probably wouldn't get very far. Fighting didn't seem possible seeing that the two men were armed. I nodded and looked at Uri. He winked at me and said in perfect Egyptian.

"I, Uri the son Moshe and my friend, Shmuel the son of Chaim will serve King Pharaoh with all the strength in our hands to show honor to the great Empire of Egypt."

The Egyptian man smiled and said, "That's the correct attitude for a Hebrew slave. My name is Ahmet, the son of Ertegun. You will call me Master Ahmet from now on."

Uri started to walk to the wagon and I followed with Ahmet and the driver behind us. We climbed in and Donkor locked the gate. We travelled for about an hour through the desert until we came to a building site. There were hundreds of Jews working there. We got off the wagon and were assigned our tasks. Ahmet divided us into three groups. The first group's job was to mix the straw and mud and make the bricks. The second group was to carry the dried bricks to the building site about 100 meters away. The third group was to lay the bricks with mortar and build the outer walls of the structure. Unfortunately Uri and I were split up. He was assigned to be a brick maker and I to be bricklayer.

Before I left with my group he came over to me and said quietly, "Remember Shmuel, you wanted the experience slavery firsthand so do your best to be present with it and pay attention to everything that happens around you. There is much to learn here."

I nodded, shook his hand, looked in his eyes, and said goodbye. Together with my work group I walked over to the building site. I was given a tool that looked like a trowel and a pail of mortar. Naftali my coworker showed me how to lay bricks. I soon caught on and though the work was hard I got some satisfaction from seeing the wall rise up higher and higher. As the day wore on my arms became weak from lifting the heavy bricks and I felt exhausted. I asked Naftali when we would get a break but he told me that there were no breaks until sunset. I was by then standing on a scaffold about five meters off the ground. One of the other workers named Yaakov handed me a brick and it slipped out of hands. It fell to the ground landing right next to master Ahmet, missing his head by inches. When it hit the ground it broke into pieces. He jumped in shock and looked up to see from where the brick had fallen. When he saw it was me he became livid with rage.

"Hey you, Hebrew slave, why did you drop that brick? It nearly hit me!" he said.

"I'm sorry Master Ahmet," I replied. "It slipped out of my hands. Believe me I'll be more careful in the future."

"Come down here at once!" he shouted.

I climbed down from the scaffold and stood before him. He looked at me with those cruel eyes and said, "I think this work is too hard for you, slave. You will change places with one of the porters until the end of the day."

I was about to protest when I remembered what Uri had told me about being present in the moment and bit my lip. Ahmet called over one of the Jews carrying bricks and told him to change places with me. He gave me what looked like a pack-frame made of wood used to transport the bricks and I walked back to the brick making site. I saw Uri there and waved to him. He didn't wave but just nodded in acknowledgement. The sun was high in the sky and very hot and I took a cup of water from one of the barrels I saw there. Just as I had begun to drink an Egyptian taskmaster came over to me and knocked the cup out of my hand.

"That water is for Egyptians only," he said. "Your water is over there."

He pointed at what looked like a trough for animals to eat out of and saw the muddy water I was meant to drink. I dipped in a wooden cup and took a sip. It had the taste of stagnant water and I spat it out. The taskmaster whose name was Odion ordered me to put on the pack frame and the workers loaded it up with bricks. It was really heavy when full. I started for the building site straining under the load. It was heavier than anything I had ever carried before and sweat was pouring down my face and chest. My back was in constant pain and I could barely move my feet. Somehow I reached the site and looked around for someone to unload the bricks for me. I didn't see the broken pieces of brick lying on the ground and I tripped over one. I fell to the side and my entire load fell off the frame. Most of them broke. Just then Ahmet appeared and I knew I was in trouble.

"You again?!" he thundered. "How could you be so clumsy? I think I need to teach you a lesson. Guards, seize him!"

Two burley Egyptians appeared out of nowhere and grabbed me by the arms. All the men working stopped to watch the scene. They pulled the top of my tunic down exposing my back and made me kneel on the ground. Ahmet stood to the side holding his whip in his hand. I looked down and the next thing I knew I felt the sharp sting of his whip across my back. I winced in pain. Again the whip cracked and the pain went deeper. After the fifth lash I felt the blood flowing down my back and my whole body shook. After the tenth lash I felt I couldn't take it anymore. He stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Slave Shmuel, stand up!" he ordered me.

I slowly stood up and my back felt like it was on fire. Ahmet looked at me with scorn.

"I hope this lashing has taught you to be more careful," he said. Now before you go back to work I will give you something to heal your wounds."

He opened his hand and showed me the white crystals. It looked to me to be either salt or sugar. He ordered me to turn around and then threw the substance at my back. The pain increased tenfold and I screamed. Then everything went black.

When I awoke it was already night. I was lying on a mat in what looked like a Bedouin tent. There were maybe fifty other slaves sleeping there as well. I felt the pain in my back but it was significantly less than what I remembered. Naftali, my work partner was sitting next to me. He looked concerned.

"What happened after the whipping?" I asked him.

"You passed out," he said. I think the pain of having salt thrown on your back was too much for you to take. You've been out for hours.

"How did I get here?"

"I and three other slaves carried you to this tent where we all sleep. I saved you some food if you are hungry."

He unwrapped a cloth and showed me a large pita bread topped with some kind of vegetable that looked like leeks. I nodded. I asked him for a cup of water and he gave me one in a stone vessel. I washed my hands onto the dirt floor while Naftali watched me looking puzzled.

I eagerly bit into the pita and felt better having something in my stomach. Then I asked for more water and drank deeply.

"Why did you pour out the water?" he asked me. "You know water is precious here and we mustn't waste it."

I realized he had no idea about the law of washing the hands before eating bread so I told him I needed to clean the dirt off my hands. He seemed satisfied with my answer. Then he moved closer and it looked like he wanted to confide something to me.

"You know I've been here a long time. At first they treated us well, but as time passed the work became more and more oppressive. The walls of the buildings we build sink into the ground and we must repeat the same thing the next day. I carried on day after day for months until there came a point I couldn't take it anymore. I was ready to throw myself into the Nile and end it all. Then a friend of mine who saw my distress gave me this amulet and my life became bearable again."

Naftali reached into his tunic and pulled out what looked like the shape of an eye and eyebrow hanging from a leather thong. He fingered it lovingly.

"This is the eye of Horus," he said. It protects against harm and brings blessing into your life. Believe me it works. Since I've started wearing it and worshipping the god Horus the guards have stopped beating me and if I give the master a gold coin I get extra rations. I've got an extra one and you can have it if you want."

"But that's idol worship!" I said. We are commanded to worship only one G-d, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the G-d who took us out of Egypt."

As soon as I said it I realized my mistake. Naftali looked at me again with a puzzled expression.

"I mean the G-d who will take us out of Egypt as He promised to our forefathers."

"Oh yes, I've heard the stories," he said. "My grandfather Joseph used to tell me when I was a little boy that we won't be slaves forever. He said that someday we will be free and G-d will take us to the Promised Land. I believed him as a child but now that I am a man I have lost that faith. I suffer because I was born a Hebrew but I serve the Egyptian gods because it is they who rule this land. And you will worship them too after you have felt the lash of the whip a few more times."

I felt sad for him as I listened to him speak. I knew there was nothing I could say to make him change his mind.

"I will never worship an idol," I said. "They will have to kill me first. Tell me Naftali, where is my friend Uri, the one I was with when they picked us up by the Nile River?"

"He is in the next tent," he said. "But you better not try to find him. If the guards find you outside your tent at night they will stop you and beat you again."

I decided to I had better stay put so I finished the bread and quietly said the blessing after a meal. I thanked Naftali and lay down to sleep, wondering what tomorrow would bring.

I was in a deep sleep when Naftali woke me up the next morning. I looked outside and saw the sky was just starting to light up with the dawn. I still felt the sting of the lashes on my back but knew better than to complain about it. I pulled on my sandals, stumbled outside, and looked around for Uri. I saw him by the water trough washing his hands and feet. I quickly joined him.

"Hey, Uri," I said. "How did you sleep last night?"

"Well," he said. "Considering the accommodations, I slept rather well. Hard physical labor does wonders for a man's sleeping habits."

"What's the plan for today? I can't say I am looking forward to another day of bricklaying and getting beaten."

"We have to get back to the river by midday today," Uri said. "Our time in the fourth dimension is almost up. Have you got any ideas how we can do it?"

"Just then I saw Ahmet over by the wagon shouting in a loud voice, "All those slaves who are disabled line up here for the clothes washing detail."

I remembered the women washing clothes by the Nile River and came up with a brilliant idea. I motioned to Uri to follow me behind the tent and told him my plan.

"We have to be disabled in order to join the clothes washers. I'm sure they will be taken to the Nile to do it. So I propose that I take a big rock and throw it in on your foot. You will do the same for me and we will both limp over to the disabled slaves line."

"Okay," Uri said. "Just don't throw it too hard. I don't want my foot completely broken."

I laughed and looked around for a stone. I found one behind our sleeping tent and when I was sure no one was looking I threw it with all my might on Uri's left foot. He gritted his teeth in order not to scream but I could tell I accomplished my goal. He then picked up the stone and smashed it down on my foot. I stifled a scream and then we both limped over to the wagon where Ahmet was standing. When he saw us he just rolled his eyes and waved us in. I think he was glad to be rid of us. When the wagon was full the wagon driver whipped the horses and we headed back to the Nile.

When we arrived the washerwomen were already hard at work by the riverbank. An Egyptian taskmaster named Haji opened the gate and about fifteen of us climbed down. I reminded Uri to keep up his limp. We were directed to a tent where we would eat breakfast. There was pita bread and what looked like humus to spread on it, cucumbers and small fish. I went outside to wash my hands and something caught my eye. Off in the distance I saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew slave. This was not an unusual occurrence but what happened next was. Another man wearing a long white robe and a hood covering his head approached the Egyptian. There was some kind of exchange between them and then I heard a sound unlike anything I had ever heard come from the man in the robe. It was a low pitched humming sound that seemed to shake the earth. Then the Egyptian fell down flat on his face. I checked to see if anyone was looking and then ran over to where the robed man was digging a hole in the sand to bury the Egyptian.

"Excuse me, sir," I said. "But I just saw what happened here. Is this man dead? And what was that strange sound I heard you make just before he fell?"

He looked up at me with eyes that were at the same time kind and otherworldly. He asked me to please help him bury this man and then he would answer my questions. I knelt down and started digging in the sand and when the hole was deep enough we rolled the Egyptian into it and covered him up. Then we both stood up. He looked at me and spoke first.

"My name is Moshe the son of Amram," he said. "I came here today to see the burdens my brethren are suffering. This Egyptian was mercilessly beating this son of Israel and when I asked him why he told me to leave at once or I would be next. I saw that this Egyptian was guilty of a great sin of immorality with this man's wife and deserved to die. I uttered the Divine Name and G-d struck him down. But I suppose I will be blamed for it. And who might you be my young friend?"

I realized this was none other than Moses, Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest prophet of Israel. This was my opportunity to ask him some questions.

"My name is Shmuel the son of Chaim. I come from far away but I too have felt the sting of the taskmaster's whip. I have seen my brothers' suffering and know about the promise of redemption for them. But I don't see how they merit to be redeemed. They are a broken people and are immersed in the same idol worship as the accursed Egyptians. They don't seem worthy of G-d's mercy."

"What you see is not the whole story," said Moses. "The Children of Israel are a people with a deep unbending faith in G-d. It lies dormant inside them covered over by the difficult circumstances of their lives. Their fall into idolatry is temporary and when the time is right G-d will send a righteous redeemer to take them out of this impure land. It is G-d's great love for his children that will overcome all of their unworthiness for the soul of every man, woman, and child born from the seed of Yakov is pure and holy and cannot be touched by the depravity of this place."

"But when will that happen?" I asked. "How much longer can the people take this exile before they are completely lost?"

"The suffering of our brethren is in order to break their bodies' connection to this physical world and to purify them. Then they will be able to see that the truth is in the world of spirit, not in the material world. G-d in His wisdom will know when to take them out. Of that you can be sure. He will never let them fall into the fiftieth gate of impurity."

I listened to his words and knew he spoke the truth. I looked in his eyes and felt so much love and warmth generating from them. I wanted to stay longer just to feel that love. Then I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and saw Uri waving his hands calling me back to the riverbank. I didn't want to get into trouble again so I thanked Moshe and told him that I must go. He smiled at me and said he wanted to bless me first. I gladly agreed. He put both his hands on my head and spoke softly.

"In the name of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I bless you with health, children, and abundant livelihood. I bless you with wisdom in the ways of this world and wisdom in the ways of heaven. May you be righteous, holy, and strong in fulfilling G-d's Will and may you live to see the righteous redeemer come to take the Children of Israel out of exile speedily in our days, amen."

Moses held his hands on my head for another minute and I felt myself transformed. My whole body seemed to be filled with light and a love that I had never known before radiated in my being. I was happy and felt a great certainty that everything would turn out for the best. Moses took his hands from my head and smiled at me. I smiled back and said goodbye.

When I got back to Uri he was frantic. He told me that Haji was looking for me and that when he found me I was sure to get another beating. We walked together down to the riverside where the other men were already busy washing the Egyptians' clothes in the water. When Haji saw me he shouted that I was late for work and would be punished. Uri told me to keep walking into the river and not to look back. Haji was shouting louder and I heard him tell two guards to put a boat in the water and bring us back. When we were chest deep in the river Uri put his hand on my shoulder and said to repeat after him and then immerse in the Nile.

"And G-d took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great fear and with signs and wonders."

We both went under and I felt the water gradually becoming colder. Uri tapped me on the shoulder and we emerged from the spring we had entered the day before. We climbed out of the water and walked back to Uri's car where we dried off and changed out clothes. We drove back to Jerusalem in silence and Uri was nice enough to take me home. Before I got out of the car he turned to face me.

"Do you feel less cynical now?" he asked. "And do you understand what it is to be a slave?"

"The cynicism is gone," I said. Moses our teacher took care of that. I never met anyone before with that much love to give. And I felt myself the pain of slavery and how deep it goes. Yet all in all I'm optimistic. It's really true what Moshe said. We are a people of deep faith. It's not just in my head and in my heart, but I feel it in my flesh and bones too. That's a great gift. Thank you Uri for taking me on this fantastic journey."

He smiled at me as I got out of the car and then he drove away. I went into my house rolled up my sleeves and got to work scrubbing out the cupboards.


from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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