Labor & Leisure

Bo By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Jan 31, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

The eve of the Exodus, as described in Parashat Bo and as we relive it in the Passover seder, reflect a peculiar admixture of labor and leisure. On the one hand, as the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:1) teaches, on the seder night, “even the poorest in Israel should not eat until he reclines.” (In this context, reclining is the classic sign of leisure.) At the same time, we eat matzah, the bread of poverty and affliction. In ancient times having more than one “tavlin” (dipping sauce), was a sign of luxury, and yet even as we dip twice, one of the things that we dip is bitter herb, and one of the sauces is salt water. This contradiction has its beginnings in this week’s parashahBo, which describes the Paschal sacrifice (the true first seder) and carries through to a central paradox in modern life.

God commands the Israelites that on the eve of the Exodus, they must offer a sacrifice and share a festive family meal, even as death stalks the streets and alleys of Egypt. “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat itb’hipazon” (Exodus 12:11) The Hebrew word, hipazon is sometimes translated as hurry, but it has a much deeper resonance, of distress (Deuteronomy 20:3) or even of panicked haste (II Samuel 4:4). My grandparents might have called it shpilkes in Yiddish. It’s not surprising that our ancestors ate on the edge of their seats, given what was going on around them.

However the same chapter sends mixed signals. Just a verse earlier (12:10), God had commanded the Jewish people, “You shall not leave any of it over until morning.” Those who are poor and hungry and don’t know where their next meals will come from will try to defy instinct and save a bit for next time. It’s only the wealthy and comfortable who can afford to throw food away and not bother with the leftovers. Furthermore, a bit later in the same parashah, (12:45) after the description of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, God issues a further commandment that the bones of the Paschal lamb must not be broken. Leaving the bones intact is also described by many commentators as a sign of luxury. If you’ve got plenty, you don’t have to rush to suck the marrow out of life. You can, as it were, just order another rack of lamb. Even as the Israelites depart, they bring with them all manner of luxury goods borrowed from their neighbors.

The rabbinic voices that shaped the seder as we know it, tried to recast these conflicting images to remove the haste and panic. To take just two examples, the Talmud (TB Pesahim 96b) comments on our verse from Exodus “You shall eat it hurriedly. You shall eat this one in haste, but not in the future.” Another Talmudic text (Pesahim 116a) explains that the term “lehem oni” which is applied to the matzah does not mean “the bread of poverty and affliction” but rather lehem she’onim ‘alav– “the bread over which one answers questions.” Indeed, the seder in its rabbinic conception took as its template the Greek symposium, a philosophical talk-feast where the wealthy would spend an evening reclining on couches, drinking wine and eating a multi-course meal while discussing a topic of intellectual interest.

Of course, for those who clean, cook, and prepare the meal, hipazon remains a major part of the seder experience, no matter what the modern advances in sharing housework and ordering from caterers. Another verse from this week’s parashah (12:26) pictures children witnessing the seder experience, and asking their parents “what is this avodah to you?” The Haggadah turns this into the question of the wicked child. Typically, the word avodah in the verse is translated as worship, so that the wicked child asks “what is the purpose of this worship for you?” (thus excluding himself from the celebration). But avodah also means work or labor, so one can read his question as “What is this labor to you? You threw off the yoke of Egyptian servitude making real mortar, and instead you bind yourself to similar drudgery hand-grinding the haroset?”

The tension between labor and leisure is not reserved only for the Israelites who huddled in their huts on the eve of redemption, or even only for those who will rise from reclining to check the brisket at this year’s seder. It is not even reserved solely for Jews. Rather, it is one of the hallmarks of our modern society. America is probably the wealthiest nation in the history of humankind, with comforts and conveniences today that our grandparents could never have imagined. We live in a country of cellphones and satellite TV, but we have found that comfort only through haste, hipazon.

If one takes the accounts of the Talmud at face value, a typical laborer 1800 years ago might have worked seventy-two hours a week: dawn to dusk, twelve hours, six days a week. At the turn of the twentieth century, the regular workweek was about sixty hours, and over the course of a century, that figure declined to closer to forty. Over the past decade, the decline has reversed itself, and not just for those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The once-wide plateau between wealth and poverty has become a more slippery slope, so that at many levels of the scale, it now takes two incomes or more, or longer work hours, to support a family in a lifestyle that includes most modern conveniences.

The steady rise in bankruptcies as well suggests that many people are reaching for a lifestyle that is increasingly difficult to support. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard researcher, has suggested that for a number of reasons, multi-income families may, ironically, find themselves in situations more tenuous than those with single earners. Whatever the other societal advantages and disadvantages of two-career families, adding another job doubles, rather than halves, the instability of uncertain times. Even for those who succeed, the boundaries between home and work are evaporating, thanks to innovations like pagers, cellphones and e-mail, and the increase in round-the-clock commerce.

So, we may finish everything put before us at the seder, but the rest of the year, dinner may mean grabbing leftovers at odd hours rather than sitting down to a family meal. We may have no Paschal sacrifice whose bones must remain unbroken, but other factors may still prevent us from sucking the marrow out of life. The characteristic of the eved, the slave, as opposed to the free man, is that he is always available to his master. In fact, the lowest point of avdut Mitzraim, the Egyptian oppression, says the Talmud (Sotah 11a), was when Pharoah found ways to make work interfere with the family lives of the Israelites.

One should try to avoid the temptation to contrast a current challenge with a past situation seen through the rose or sepia-tinted lenses of hindsight. In next week’s parashah, (Exodus 16:3) the Israelites reflect longingly on their time in Egypt, “we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” It’s unreasonable to seek a return to some sort of “Leave it to Beaver” past that only have existed on television.

Perhaps, in mixing feelings of luxury and slavery on that very first seder night, God sought to remind the Israelites that it is possible to be surrounded by the signs of physical comfort, but still be enslaved. Perhaps, too, the story of the Exodus, and its retelling in this week’s parashah and at the seder several months hence, can remind us, too, to rethink our definitions of slavery and luxury. Slavery is living one’s life in hipazon, in hurry, in concern, even though one might be living well, surrounded by the financial spoils of Egypt. Luxury, and freedom, is being able to sit back at a meal, even if it is made of leftovers, even if it is Lehem Oni.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joshua Heller


The publication and distribution of Rabbi Heller’s commentary on Parashat Bo are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.