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What’s clear from our parsha (Shemot), is that the Jews in Egypt were involved in brick-making. The verse (Ex. 1:14) states, “And they embittered their lives with hard labor; with mortar and bricks and all kinds of labor in the field, and all the work that they forced upon them was crushing labor.” The Talmud (Sota 11B) explains that the slavery began with mortar and bricks, continued on to work in the field, and ultimately to all kinds of crushing labor. The beginning of the verse is a “clal,” or general principle, and the rest of the verse goes into the details; what began as work in mortar and bricks branched off into all kinds of crushing labor, all of which were involved in the brick making process.

The Egyptians had to be clever to get the Jews to enlist in this work. In fact, Pharoah himself set the example by working together with the Jews in the beginning (this was the “peh rach,” or glib mouth hinted to in the phrase “avodat perach,” - crushing labor). They patriotically threw themselves into the task (since they saw Pharoah getting involved), and made bricks with all of their power. Then, once he saw that the Jews had bought into it, Pharoah stepped back and said, “This is the amount of bricks that you must manufacture every day.” So, we know that brick making was the main occupation for most of the seventy years of intense subjugation in Egypt. The involvement of Moshe and Aharon came near the end of this period, when they approached Pharoah and said (in effect), “Let my people go.” Pharoah, correctly sensing a plot, ordered the Jews back to work with even more cruelty, forcing them to gather their own raw materials, as well as manufacture the bricks. Again, we see that from the beginning of the slavery to the end, the main occupation was brick making, and even when the Jews were involved in other labors, they were all details in the brick making process.

Pharoah was a master of witchcraft. His real aim was to siphon off Jewish energy meant for building the holy Land, and to use it to build the idolatrous nation of Egypt. In Israel, stones are plentiful and one builds with stones. In Egypt, there are no stones suitable to build with, and one builds with bricks. Stones are created by G-d, but bricks are manufactured by human beings. Had the Jews been in their rightful homeland, they would have used their energy to build a holy nation with stones, which are created ex-nihilo by the One above. But, enslaved in Egypt, the Jews channeled their immense energy into the idolatrous nation-building of Pharoah. They had to put their own G-dly energy to work making bricks. That was Pharoah’s aim, and he was no fool. He recognized holy energy when he saw it, and he wanted to channel it for his own purposes.

However, that leaves us with a question: If the aim of Pharoah was to siphon off Jewish energy and use it to build Egypt, why didn’t he require the Jews to build with stone? Even if there were no stone suitable for building in Egypt, stone could have been quarried elsewhere, and used for building in Egypt. Then, Pharoah would have profited not only from Jewish energy, but also from Jewish energy involved in what Jews do naturally; that is, build from stone. If the objective was to capitalize on Jewish labor for Pharoah’s negative goals, then it would have made more sense to take the energy from its source in holiness, using G-d made creations that the Jews used to build the holy Land. The fact that Pharoah nevertheless insisted upon bricks indicates that there is a certain advantage to bricks that Pharoah wished to capitalize upon, and therefore he forced the Jews to go against their own nature and manufacture bricks.

One possibility is the following: G-d desires from the Jews to make for Him a “dwelling place in the lower worlds” – in a world that is so low that it isn’t possible to go any lower. That is, He wishes from us to transform the lowest of all realms into a place in which G-dliness is expressed and revealed. If so, then bricks, which are a lower (man-made) creation than stones (which are created by G-d) better express the will of the One above than stones. If His desire is to dwell in the lowest of worlds, then a nation made of bricks is on a lower level than a nation built from stone, and that’s why G-d had the Jews build Egypt from bricks. This hypothesis, however, is incorrect. If it were correct, then Pharoah would not have insisted that the Jews manufacture the bricks. He would have insisted that they use bricks to build, but not that the Jews also manufacture the bricks. The fact that he insisted that the Jews not only build but also manufacture the bricks, indicates that more was involved than whether the building was from stone or bricks.

We’ll be able to understand this by comparing the mishkan (tabernacle in the desert) with the Temple that was built in Jerusalem. Both contained stone, but while the Temple was built only with stone, the mishkan contained other materials as well. In fact, in the mishkan, one could clearly see a hierarchy of building materials that covered the gamut from Above to below. The roof and its coverings were made of animal skins, from the animal kingdom (seals, deer, etc). The walls of the mishkan were made of wooden boards (from the vegetable kingdom), and the floor of the mishkan was composed of the dust of the earth (mineral). So, we see a hierarchy from Above to below that reflected the tendency of G-dliness to come down and reveal itself from G-d to us. However, the Temple was composed mainly of stone. It’s true that there was wood in the Temple, but it was present as support and decoration, rather than as the basic building material, which was stone.

The mishkan and the Temple reflected two different ways that G-dliness can come down from Above and affect our world. One way corresponds to the mishkan, in which spirituality descended in a specific order. Through such revelation, we become aware of the infinite illumination of the One above, each soul and each creation according to its specific spiritual level. Some can handle more revelation that others, just as there were different levels of revelation of G-dliness among the three categories of animal, mineral and vegetable in the mishkan. However, such illumination has an effect only while it is present. Once it no longer illuminates, the world reverts to its former (un-. spiritual) state. There is, though another way that G-dliness can come down to the world. G-dly revelation can cause the world to recognize G-d. By such a revelation, we become aware not only of the unlimited nature of spiritual illumination, but also of how we all possess a spark of G-dliness within. This is a much higher revelation of G-dliness, that not only illuminates but also penetrates and motivates the world. Such was the revelation of the Temple. The Temple was built of stone precisely to demonstrate that the lowest category of creation is also infused and permeated with G-dliness. The Temple was not only a place that was illuminated by spirituality. It was also a place that was permeated through and through with G-dliness, right down to the stones with which it was built.

This point, that G-dliness not only illuminates from Above but also penetrates below, is best expressed by stone. Spirituality may shine from above, illuminating the world regardless of the world’s orientation and status. But, the ability of G-dliness to penetrate the creation indicates that G-dliness is at the heart and essence of creation, down to the lowest detail of the lowest category. If even the rocks that we tread upon and the stones with which we build with express G-dliness, then the essential truth behind creation becomes apparent; there is no detail of creation devoid of G-liness. It not only shines from Above to below, but permeates through and through below. That is why the Temple was built from stone, to indicate the essential truth expressed so eloquently by the Ralbag (Milchemet HaShem 6:15), “Among the attributes of truth is that it corroborates and confirms itself from every angle.” If even the lowest category of creation is permeated with G-dliness, then surely the entire creation is G-dly.

The mishkan, built according to the hierarchy of categories of creation (animal-vegetable- mineral) corresponded to the first kind of revelation of G-dliness, from Above to below. It placed emphasis upon the unlimited nature of the infinite light from Above, but expressed nothing about the ability of creation below to accept and absorb the light. The Temple, on the other hand, built of stone, corresponded to the ability of the creation to accept and absorb G-dliness from below. When the creation itself recognizes G-dliness and becomes a vehicle for its expression, it is understood that the most significant category of creation is also the lowest. That is why the Temple was made of stone. However, there is a further development that didn’t happen in either the mishkan or in the Temple, but will take place in the future, G-d willing.

If the goal of existence is to reveal G-dliness in the world, then every aspect and facet of the world must be included. Even the last detail of creation that hides or conceals G-dliness must ultimately come to recognize and express it. And yet, the revelations of both the mishkan and the Temple failed to reach every aspect of creation. The infinite revelation of the mishkan from Above to below did nothing to persuade the creation itself to recognize G-d. And the revelation of the Temple, which did influence the world to recognize G-d, didn’t reach the entire world. There were and are elements that hide and conceal G-dliness. There were and are people and movements that are opposed, actively or passively to the expression of G-dliness in the world. Until these elements are either shattered or transformed, it cannot be said that the world has become a dwelling place for the One above. And that brings us back to bricks.

The brick-making process, after one has gathered the materials and mixed them, involves putting the mortar into a mold and then firing it in a kiln to harden and make it into a brick. The hardening process transforms the mortar and makes it into a new material. In fact, several centuries earlier during the building of the “Tower of Babel,” the people initiated their project by saying (Gen 11:3), “Let’s make bricks and burn them in a fire and turn the bricks into stones.” The process of burning the bricks in the oven is so intense that it actually turns the mortar into a new substance that is as hard as stone. In abstract terms, that means that the “furnace of iron” that was the Egyptian slavery (itself a rectification for the sin of building the tower of Babel, according to Kabala) transformed the Jews into new people. Just as man-made mortar could be turned into a new substance as hard as stone, so did the Jews become a new, hardened nation, dedicated to G-d. Materials that formerly hid and concealed G-dliness were transformed into entities that revealed and expressed G-liness in the world. So, the bricks represented the ultimate in creating a dwelling place for G-d; the transformation of the entire world, including that which formerly opposed G-dliness, into vehicles for G-dly revelation. It was this that Pharoah was after. He sought to enslave the Jewish ability to become G-dly, and capitalize upon it for his own purposes. Were it not for Moshe and Aharon, and the Pesach revelation of G-d from above, Pharoah would have succeeded. But, because the plan from Above was for the Jews to enter Israel and establish a G-dly kingdom, G-d shattered the Egyptian slavery and the Jews left Egypt for matan Torah and the holy Land.

Nevertheless, brick-making lives on. The life of every Jew until the coming of meshiach (the Jewish messiah) and the building of the third Temple is a life of making bricks. Whatever we encounter in life, we have a task to transform it into kedusha, or holiness. Not until every detail and every element of the world reveals G-dliness and it is clear that “ain od milvado” – there is no none other than Him – will the profession of brick making become obsolete. Until, then, the job of every Jew is to work hard, undergo a transformation of fire and turn himself and the world into a new creation – one that expresses G-dliness in the world.

Adopted from Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, Volume 6, pp. 16-25 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem