As the Torah tells the tale, the children of Israel, before they could become a people chosen by G‑d as His “light unto the nations,” had to first undergo the “smelting pit of Egypt.” For 210 years they were “strangers in a land that is not theirs,” during the last 86 of which they were inducted into forced labor by the Egyptians, primarily in the manufacture of bricks.

Why bricks? Nothing is incidental in G‑d’s world, particularly in the history of His people. If we were forged as a nation at the brick kilns of Egypt, then the brick is significant to our mission in life.

Stones and Bricks

The human being is a builder. Some of us build physical structures—homes, cities, roads, high- or low-tech machines, and a host of other useful (or useless) objects. Others engage in more metaphysical construction, structuring words, pigments or sounds so that they house ideas or feelings. And we all build a life, forging materials from our environment, our society and our own psyche into an edifice that serves a certain function and aim.

Endowed by our Creator with free choice, we might make this a material or spiritual aim, a selfish or altruistic one, a positive or negative one; or we can make it the ultimate aim of building what the Midrash calls “a dwelling for G‑d” by devoting our life to the fulfillment of G‑d’s will as revealed in the Torah.

The materials we use fall under two general categories: G‑d-given and manmade. Many of the “materials” out of which we build our lives were already here when we arrived on the scene, ready for use, or with their potential implicit in it, awaiting discovery and realization. But G‑d empowered us to do more than simply develop His world. Desiring that we become His “partners in creation” (as the Talmud expresses it), He imparted to us the ability to create potential where no such potential exists.

Therein lies the deeper significance of the bricks we molded and fired as we matured as a people.

The book of Genesis (in chapter 11) describes the invention of the brick: Originally, the survivors of the Flood inhabited mountainous regions, and quarried stone as a building material; but then they settled in the valley of Shinar (later Babylon), where they desired to build “a city, and a tower whose head reached to the heavens.” Where would they find a material strong enough for such a massive structure? Someone had an idea: “They said one to the other, ‘Let us mold bricks, and bake them with fire.’ And the brick served them as stone, and clay served them as mortar” (Genesis 11:3).

The “stone” represents those materials which G‑d provides us to build our lives. Not that man needn’t toil; the stone must be hewn from the mountain, transported, cut into shape, and fitted with many others for a structure to be raised. But the stone is there, solid and fit for the task, awaiting development. In our personal lives, this represents those elements that are naturally qualified to serve as part of a “home for G‑d” and readily lend themselves to this end: our positive character traits, the sacred times and places in creation (e.g., the 24 hours of Shabbat, the Holy Land), objects and forces designated for the performance of a mitzvah (e.g. a Torah scroll, a pair of tefillin).

Then there are those elements that are as qualified a building material as raw clay: our selfish and animalistic instincts, and a material world that obscures the truth of its Creator. Elements that by nature are inconducive, or even contrary, to anything good and G‑dly. To include these elements in the dwelling for G‑d we make of our lives, we must forge bricks: knead and mold them into a shape they have never known, and fire them in the kiln of self-sacrifice and love of G‑d, until they become as solid and supportive as the sacred stones in our edifice.