Thursday, January 19, 2006

FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: The Power of Invention (Shemot)


Tevet 19, 5766 * January 19, 2006


Parshat Shemot

The Power of Invention
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Humanity has the power to select beautiful pieces of nature and arrange them in a pleasing way. We also have the power to create new things which do not occur naturally; we discover fresh possibilities, and develop them into something which has never existed before.

Both these faculties are important. However, it is our power of invention and discovery which has led to the fascinating technology with which we live. It is our power of invention which has created the modern world.

How do these two faculties relate to the Torah? Is the Torah trying to push us back to the simplicity of the past, or forwards to the discoveries of the future?

A discussion of the Parsha [1] by the Lubavitcher Rebbe throws light on this question.
One of the themes in the Parsha concerns bricks. The Jewish slaves had to make bricks. They mixed straw and clay, formed the mixture into blocks of the right shape and heated them in a kiln [2]. With the resulting bricks they built store cities for Pharaoh.

A serious moment in the Parsha is when Pharaoh tells the Jews he will no longer supply them with straw for the bricks. They will have to gather it themselves.

Now, the brick making technology described above might sound very primitive, straight out of the British Museum. True. However, the point is that it was a 'technology'. People had discovered, through human thought, creativity and inventiveness, that this was a way to obtain strong bricks. It was a completely different approach from building with natural rock cut to size.

How does this tell us anything about us? Isn't this just describing a detail of ancient history, the slavery of the Jews in Egypt?

The Chassidic way of understanding the Torah is that as well as telling us our national history, it is also describing our own personal lives. We too may find ourselves in a kind of spiritual slavery, in which we use our personal powers of creativity and invention for our 'Egyptian' taskmasters. In other words, we use these powers for purely material purposes, perhaps even, for selfish purposes. Metaphorically, we use this power to build 'store-cities for Pharaoh'.

Personal redemption from Egypt means that this human power of invention is redeemed from slavery. It is devoted to unselfish goals, and even more, to spiritual goals. Our power of invention is used as a way to serve G-d. In the imagery of the Torah, when redeemed we make bricks not for Pharaoh's store cities, but in order to build 'the city of G-d'.

This helps us understand the Jewish concept of Redemption. It is not only a matter of passively recognizing the G-dliness which is hidden in nature. It means also utilizing to the full our human powers of creativity, our ability to make something new in order to express the Glory of G-d [3].


1. Exodus 1:1-6:1.
2. See Exodus 5:7 ff., and also Gen. 11:3.
3. Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot, vol. 6, pp.14-25


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