[The Egyptians] made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.
The words “bricks” and “mortar” are only found in one other verse in the Torah, at the story of the Tower of Babel:
They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.
What is the connection between Babel and Egypt? After all, those building the tower seemed to all be doing it willingly, while slavery in Egypt was not, for the Hebrew slaves, a choice. Why are they linguistically tied together?
There are several interlinking answers. For starters, if you build with stone, the builder must work with each stone, each unique shape. But bricks are interchangeable. There is no unique quality to any specific brick; you can easily swap one in for another. Rabbi Lapin suggests that bricks are symbolic of people within a socialist world, where people are merely replaceable cogs. And when we make people into mere bricks, then we deny everything that makes a person unique and precious in the eyes of G-d.
We could also suggest that while the Torah is in favor of all human building in principle (neither the Tower of Babel nor what the Jews build in Egypt are destroyed by G-d), these particular buildings are not connected with the word oleh, which means a spiritual elevation. These edifices only have a physical, not a spiritual component. Which explains why the buildings were built to elevate man for his own sake: the storehouses are named for Pharaohs, because the buildings are tributes to the men who built them, not to any higher power. Babel was the same: the builders sought to make a big name for themselves, not in pursuit of any greater calling. Both reflect the products of totalitarianism.
There is another aspect to this verse as well: life making bricks was embittered. This word is first found with Esau:
When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.
What makes his choice of spouse bitter? Isaac and Rebekah fear that Esau’s relationship to his parents and most importantly to G-d, will be broken. (This is the same bitterness at Marah and the suspected wife, the sotah, as discussed here. It also connects to Esau’s bitter crying; he also fears the loss of relationship.) When we eat bitter herbs at the Passover Seder it is only superficially connected to the fact that life as a slave was physically unpleasant; the much more important facet of the bitterness is that we feared we were losing our connections to ourselves, our unique identities, and thus to G-d. If we remove our individuality, then we destroy the individual’s unique capability to contribute to the world.
Bitterness is about fearing the loss of our humanity and our relationships. And so the Egyptians embitter the people with the work making bricks, causing us to doubt whether we have value in our own eyes and in the eyes of our Creator.
[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]