Before they could become a people, chosen by G-d as His “light unto the nations,” the children of Israel had to first undergo the “smelting pit of Egypt.” For 210 years they were “strangers in a land that is not theirs,” the last eighty-six 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.
“And the brick served them as stone”
Man is a builder. Some build physical structures: homes, cities, roads, hi- or low-tech machines, and a host of other useful (or useless) objects. Others engage in more metaphysical construction, structuring words, hues or sounds so that they house ideas or feelings. But all build a life, forging materials from their environment, their society and their own psyche into an edifice that serves a certain function and aim. Man being endowed by his Creator with free choice, he might make this a material or spiritual aim, a selfish or altruistic one, a positive or negative one; or he can make it the ultimate aim of “building a dwelling for G-d” by devoting his 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 man-made. Much of what we build our lives with was already here when we arrived on the scene, ready for use, or with its potential implicit in it, awaiting discovery and realization. But G-d empowered us to do more than simply develop His world. Desiring that we be His “partners in creation,”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. In the eleventh chapter of Genesis, the Torah 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.”
The “stone” represents those materials with which G-d provides us to build our lives. Not that man needn’t toil—the stone must be cut from the mountain, transported, hewn 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, these are the 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 twenty-four 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 unconducive, 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, 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.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Shemot, 5726 (January 15, 1966) and on other occasions.
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.
. Isaiah 42:6.
. Deuteronomy 4:20.
. See Exodus 1:14 and 5:7-19; Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 15:16.
. “G-d desired a dwelling in the physical world” (Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16); “This is what man is all about; this is the purpose of his creation, and the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral” (Tanya, ch. 36).
. Talmud, Shabbat 10a; ibid., 119b
. Genesis 11:3.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. VI, pp. 13-25.