Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VI, p. 13ff.

I. The Talmud explains1 that the verse:2 “And they embit­tered their lives with mortar and bricks, and all [sorts of] work in the field, all their work...,” [reflects a sequence]. First, they compelled them to work with “mortar and bricks.” Afterwards, they were forced to do “all [sorts of] work in the field,” and ultimately,3 “all their work.”

The commentaries4 explain the Talmud’s intent as fol­lows: One might ask: Why does the verse single out “mortar and bricks”? Seemingly, these tasks are also included in “all their work.” Therefore the Talmud explains that “mortar and bricks” came first. It was the beginning of their “work in the field.” Therefore the verse mentions it (first and) as a separate category.

Every concept in the Torah is extremely precise. The fact that the work with “mortar and bricks” came first (and only afterwards came “all their work”) reflects more than chronological precedence. It was also the most significant and most difficult element of their enslavement. When describing the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt with a general statement, one would say that they performed work with “mortal and bricks.” Afterwards, as one begins to explain the various particulars, one would speak of their “work in the field.”

From this, we can conclude that even ultimately, when the Jews performed “all their work,” the core of their enslavement involved making bricks.5 This concept is also reflected in the ensuing phases of the narrative, for when Pharaoh desired to “make the work difficult for the men,”6 {— an event which took place in the final phases of the enslavement in Egypt, after Moshe and Aharon had already come to Pharaoh as G‑d’s emissaries and told him to release the people —} he sought to accomplish this, (not through any other type of work, but) through the task of making bricks. [He told his overseers] not to give the Jews any straw for the bricks, and yet to require them to produce the same quantity of bricks in the same given amount of time as they had previously.

Moreover, throughout the time of the enslavement, the Jews’ workday was primarily devoted to making bricks (although they also performed other tasks). This is understood from the interpretation the Midrash offers7 to the verse:8 “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel perform excruciating (lrpc) labor,” as lr vpc, “with a soft tongue,”9 [i.e., with deception]. Pharaoh himself took a basket and a rake and made bricks, and while performing this work, he told the Jewish people: “Work together with me today as a favor,” i.e., that they should follow his exam­ple and make bricks.10 [The Jews fell for his ploy, and] worked with him “with all their strength.” When night fell, Pharaoh had a reckoning made of the bricks and told the Jews: “Prepare this amount every day.”

Since every day, they had to prepare the same number of bricks that they had made on that first day when they had worked “with all their strength” for the entire day, it fol­lows that throughout the later time of their enslavement, the overwhelming majority of their time — indeed, it could almost be said their entire time11 — was spent making bricks.12 The other work which they performed was carried out during the few extra hours they had and at night.13

On this basis, we can appreciate why the Torah men­tions explicitly the Jews’ work “with bricks and mortar.” For even after they were compelled to perform “all their work,” their primary occupation was making bricks.

II. To explain why the fundamental aspect of the Jews’ en­slavement14 involved “mortar and bricks”: As stated on a different occasion at length,15 the explanation of the verse: “And Egypt enslaved the children of Israel... and they embittered their lives” [refers to the Jews’ spiritual vitality]. For the true vitality and the true energy of the Jewish peo­ple stems from holiness16 (from their G‑dly soul).17

The Egyptians desired [to subjugate this potential and] use it to build storage cities for Pharaoh. Instead of the Jews building a dwelling for G‑d, building “the city of our G‑d,”18 they were compelled by those “who cause them aggravation and distress”19 to use their holy powers to establish a dwelling for kelipah, “storage cities for Pharaoh.”

“One corresponds to the other.”20 “The city of our G‑d” is built from stone (just as a city is built from many houses, and the houses built from stone21 — for the fundamental strength of a house depends on the stones with which it is built).22 The cities of kelipah, by contrast (for kelipah copies holiness as a monkey mimics man23) [are built from bricks]. And thus the essential enslavement of the Jewish people involved making bricks (for “they used bricks in place of stones”24), the building blocks for the Egyptian cities.

On this basis, we can understand why “mortar and bricks” is mentioned before the general term “all of their work” (as mentioned in sec. I). For the inner meaning of every act that a person performs is building. When he per­forms a positive act, whether a mitzvah or an activity which is neither commanded or forbidden, but is carried out “for the sake of heaven”25 or [in a manner which fulfills the charge:26] “Know Him in all your ways,” he adds a stone to the building of holiness. And when he performs an undesir­able act, he adds a brick to the building of kelipah. The different nature of the activities is expressed in the type of building, but there is a common factor shared by all the ac­tivities, they are all building. (Positive activities are building Jerusalem, while negative activities are building Tyre.)27

III. Within stones themselves, there are two categories: stones and bricks. Stones are created by G‑d, while bricks are fashioned by man.28 The work performed by the Jews in Egypt centered primarily (not on using stones, but) on making bricks.

What is the difference between stones and bricks? Stones are created by G‑d and allude to a high level of holi­ness.29 Therefore, at the outset, the Beis HaMikdash was to be built from stone,30 and Eretz Yisrael is praised31 as “a land whose stones are iron.”

Bricks, by contrast, refer to activities which are reshus, neither commanded nor forbidden,32 but whose outcome — whether holiness or the opposite — depends on man’s intention.

{For this reason, we find that the prohibition against prostrating oneself with outstretched hands and legs applies only on a stone floor, and not on a brick floor.33 For the prohibition was instituted so that an activity — prostration — which resembles an activity performed in the Beis HaMik­dash34 should not be performed outside of the Beis HaMikdash. Since bricks do not allude to any element of holiness, prostrating oneself on a brick floor does not resemble the service of prostration performed in the Beis HaMikdash.}

Indeed, bricks have (the potential [to be used] for) the opposite of holiness.35 Thus the Talmud, when speaking about designating a false divinity,36 gives as an example:37 “He erected a brick.”38 A similar concept is reflected in Rashi’s commentary39 [explaining why the Tower of Bavel was built with bricks]: “For there are no stones in Bavel, for it is a valley.” Since Bavel (and any valley40) is a low place, a place where the Divine light is concealed, a place of dark­ness, to the extent that the Torah applies the phrase:41 “He set me down in a dark place,” to the Babylonian Talmud.42 Therefore the level of stones which are created by Heaven is not relevant to Bavel.

IV. Based on the above, it is possible to explain why the ar­duous labor the Jews had to perform in Egypt concerned bricks and not stones. Since the purpose of their work was to build “storage cities for Pharaoh,” the very opposite of “the city of our G‑d,” the building could not be performed with stones which reflect the realm of holiness, but rather with bricks, which are appropriate for “cities for Pharaoh.”

This explanation is, however, insufficient. For, as explained above, the intent of the Egyptians was to use the power and vitality of holiness the Jews possessed to build the cities of kelipah, as indicated by the verse: “And Egypt enslaved the children of Israel... and they embittered their lives.43 Thus it would seem appropriate that they would have sought (and indeed, with greater intensity44) to use stones for their cities, for this would have enabled them to derive nurture from the holiness contained in the stones which are created by G‑d.45

We must therefore say that the opposite is true. Despite the great advantage possessed by stones, bricks must con­tain an even greater quality. And because of that greater quality, the Egyptians so anxiously endeavored to make the Jews work (as their highest priority and for the most time) with bricks. For their intent was to introduce into the realm of kelipah the high spiritual level associated with bricks.

V. On the surface, it is possible to explain that the advan­tage possessed by bricks over stone (which, because of this advantage, the Egyptians desired to have the “storage cities for Pharaoh” built from bricks) is that their level is lower.

As is well known, “The Holy One, blessed be He, de­sired that He (blessed be He)46 have a dwelling in the lower realms.”47 As the Alter Rebbe (whose yahrzeit falls on Teves 2448) emphasizes,49 this refers to [our material world], for “there is no lower level below it.” Thus the lower the level that becomes a dwelling for G‑d, the deeper and more con­summate is the fulfillment of His will and intent. Thus building “the city of G‑d” with bricks, which are on a lower level, fulfills G‑d’s intent more than building it with stones.50

To cite a parallel: The Beis HaMikdash possesses an advantage over the Sanctuary which accompanied the Jews in the desert. The Sanctuary was a temporary dwelling for G‑d,51 and was built primarily from (boards of) cedar, i.e., from the plant kingdom. The Beis HaMikdash, by contrast, is G‑d’s permanent dwelling52 and it was built from stone,53 inanimate matter, which is lower54 than plants.55

In truth, however, this explanation is not sufficient. If this was the higher quality that bricks possess (and thus it would be fitting to build “the city of our G‑d” from bricks to fulfill G‑d’s intent for a dwelling in the lower worlds in a more consummate manner), the Egyptians (seeking to use the highest potentials the realm of holiness possesses for the purposes of kelipah) should have desired that the build­ing of the cities for Pharaoh, the cities of kelipah, be performed only (by Jews) using bricks. It does not seem appropriate, however, for them to have forced the Jews to make bricks.

The fact that the Egyptians did compel the Jews to per­form that activity — indeed, the fundamental element of their enslavement was directed toward that end56 — indi­cates that making bricks expresses the ultimate advantage [of a Jew’s service]. (And for that reason, the Egyptians compelled the Jews to make the bricks for Pharaoh’s cities, so that they could derive nurture from the elevated effect produced by that activity.)

VI. The elevated quality which is brought out by making bricks can be understood through the preface of a more detailed explanation of the difference between the Sanctuary and the Beis HaMikdash stated above. [As men­tioned,] the Sanctuary was made primarily from plants, while the Beis HaMikdash was built from stone.

Were it true that the Sanctuary did not include inani­mate matter at all, one could say simply that it had not brought about a dwelling in the lower worlds. [For G‑d’s dwelling would not have encompassed] the realm of inani­mate matter, the lowest rung possible (and that would not be achieved until the building of the Beis HaMikdash). In truth, however, the Sanctuary also included inanimate matter, for the floor of the Sanctuary was from earth. And the earth was an integral element of the Sanctuary as a whole; it also contributed to the indwelling of G‑d’s Pres­ence, as evident from the verse:57 “And the priest will take from the earth on the floor of the Sanctuary.”

As such, since G‑dliness was drawn down to the lowest levels possible in the Sanctuary, why was the Sanctuary built from the plant kingdom instead of inanimate matter as was the Beis HaMikdash?