This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Isaac ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline
Akavya ben Mahalal'el used to say, "Reflect upon these three things and you will never come to sin: (1) Know from whence you came (2) whither you are going (3) and before Whom you will one day be destined to give a future account and reckoning.
Where did you come from? You came from a tipah sirucha (stinking drop). Where are you going? You are going to a place of dust, worms and maggots. Before Whom will you be giving a future account and reckoning? Before the King of all kings, the Holy One, blessed is He.
When G-d wanted to release the Jews from Egyptian bondage, He sent Moshe to ask them first if they preferred slavery to following the Torah's 613 commandments. Naturally, this conversation was a no brainer. The Jews replied, "We want Exodus." They had faced utter brutality for the last two hundred years: by the shores of the Nile and during their labors. At one point, Pharaoh had cranked up the workload so high that his slaves scarcely had energy to think about why they were suffering let alone contemplate ways to rid themselves of the pain. Which, by the way, was Pharaoh's aim. Mission accomplished.
Was Exodus the answer to the issue of slavery or did they consider committing to an eternity of servitude to G-d the lesser of two evils? After all, passing from the hands of one master to another doesn't actually alter one's slave status. Keeping the Torah and its laws isn't like taking a snooze at the beach. It's a lifetime of work. Now, my friends, we come to the crux of Akavya's reflection: the long short of a human being's time in this world is that man will always be enslaved to something so let's make sure that thing will eventually bring us prime seats in the next world.
While Egypt was symbolically a place for feeding one's basest desires, keeping the Torah was (and is) considered a wholly spiritual practice. During the generation of Exodus, the Jews had to cut themselves free of the former before binding themselves to G-d. This is one of the reasons why we spent 50 days learning and in introspection before we were fit to receive the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Apparently, we also needed time to revamp all the personal habits we'd accumulated in Egypt. How can we connect that brief time period of cleansing to 21st century society? What do people need to unshackle themselves from nowadays?
When handheld mobile phones started selling store wide in 1979 (and don't even get me started on the history of texting), paradoxically, and with the advancement of the decades, humanity's communication skills got weaker. To add coal to fire, in 2003 Steve Jobs introduced the iPod; then, in 2007 he ran the first generation iPhone. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg had launched Facebook in 2004. Now, I ask you: the meaning of life, introspection and for Heaven's sake, relationships with depth! Where are they? What happened to them? "One thing I've noticed about cell phones. When we have them we are far less interested in the people around us" Jerry Seinfeld. Can we blame technology?
Finding time for thinking about why you are alive and what your purpose in this world is was the idea Rabbi Akavya was driving at. At first glance, his mishnah appears morbid, maybe a little depressing and it is, if you are only living for the moment. However, Judaism is a religion based on preparing oneself for the next world. We drill ourselves into asking the questions, "Where did I come from and where am I going? What will I have to say for myself when the day of reckoning comes?" These are nerve wracking ideas to consider and, unfortunately, with the advancement of technology, easier to ignore. Pharaoh declared, "Work till you can't think." Technology (i.e. cellphones, computers, movies etc. etc.) endorses instant gratification, acting impulsively and satisfying one's most immediate desires.
What happens when you stop thinking? Nothing. Nothing happens. You're not moving in any specific direction; Life starts to look like an existential dark hole.
Don't be a personal Pharaoh. Take a trip to the backwoods once in a while and reassess why and for what you are. Trust me: you'll find reasons for living.