And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with mortar and bricks and in all manner of work in the field; all the work to which they subjected them was crushing labor.

Exodus 1:14

The phrase "crushing labor" (avodat perech) appears repeatedly in the Torah's account of the Egyptian galut (exile and enslavement), in the text of the Haggadah, and in the symbolism of the seder observances.

What is crushing labor? Maimonides defines it as "work that has no limit and no purpose." Work — even most difficult work — that has a defined end-point and a defined objective is not as demoralizing as endless, futile work. The Egyptians, whose aim in enslaving the Jewish people was to break their spirit, refused to impart any schedule, logic, efficiency or utility to their work. They worked them at the most irrational hours, gave to each of them the task most ill-suited to his or her abilities, and repeatedly destroyed what they had built only to order them to rebuild it again and again.

Pharaoh had whip-wielding taskmasters to enforce his work edict. Today, our world has progressed to the point that millions voluntarily subject themselves to work that has no limit and no purpose: work that spills over from its official work-hours to invade every moment and thought of the day; work that is dictated not by the capabilities and resources of the worker but by status and vogue; work that is not a means to an end but a "career" — a self-perpetuating enterprise that becomes its own aim and objective.

(Therein lies the deeper significance of Pharaoh's decree, "Every son that is born you shall cast into the Nile." The Nile, which irrigated the fields of rain-parched Egypt, was the mainstay of its economy and therefore its most venerated god. Throwing one's child into the Nile, in the spiritual sense, means to immerse him in a culture which deifies the career — which worships the earthly vehicles of material sustenance as an end in itself.)

Endless Lives

By nature, the physical self is finite and pragmatic. So what drives it to, and sustains it in, such infinite labor? What can be the source of its perseverance in pursuit of the ever-receding goal of material success?

Such boundless commitment and energy can only have one source: the spark of G‑dliness that is the essence of the human soul. Only the soul, which draws upon the infinity of its divine source, can exhibit such vigor; only the soul, whose commitment to its Creator is an end unto itself, not contingent upon envisionable goals and calculable objectives, can be the driving force behind work that has "no limit and no purpose."

The soul of man is thus subjected to a galut within a galut: not only is it prevented from expressing its true self, but it is forced to express itself in ways that are contrary to its true desires. Not only is it constrained by a material self and world — it also suffers the usurpation of its quintessential powers to drive the material self's mundane labors. Not only is the soul's capacity for infinite and objectiveless commitment inhibited and repressed — it is distorted into an endless quest for material gain.

The Discipline of Freedom

The road out of Egypt passes through Sinai.

The Torah regulates our involvement with the material world. It instructs that we may — and should — work, create, and do business six days a week, but that on the seventh day, not only must all work cease, but we should assume a state of mind in which "all your work is done." On a daily basis, it tells us to set aside inviolable islands in time devoted to Torah study and prayer. And at all times, a multitude of Torah laws define the permissible and the forbidden in business and pleasure.

The Torah also enjoins us to "eat of the toil of your hands" — to invest only our marginal faculties in the business of earning a living, leaving our choicest talents free to pursue more spiritual goals. And it insists that all material pursuits should be but a means to an end, but a vessel to receive G‑d's blessings and a tool to aid us in our life's work of bringing sanctity and G‑dliness into our world.

In so restricting our physical lives, the Torah liberates our souls. By limiting the extent and the nature of our material involvements, Torah extricates our capacity for infinite commitment from its material exile, freeing it to follow its natural course: to serve G‑d in a manner of "no limit and no purpose" in the positive sense — in a manner that transcends the parameters of self, self-gain and our very conception of achievement.1