We read in the beginning of Parashat Shemot of Pharaoh’s enslavement of Benei Yisrael, forcing them to build the cities of Pitom and Ramses (1:11). The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:10), surprisingly, comments that Benei Yisrael were in truth forced to build just one city. According to one view, the city they built was named “Pitom,” but it was also referred to as “Ramses” because “rishon rishon mitroseis” – each time the city was built, it collapsed and needed to be built anew. According to another view, the city’s real name was “Ramses,” but it was also given the name “Pitom” because each time it was built, it fell into “pi tehom” – the “opening to the depths of the earth.” In other words, according to the Midrash, the Egyptians forced Benei Yisrael to build a city in a place that guaranteed the buildings’ imminent collapse, such that they would need to be built anew, repeatedly. (Some explain that these cities were situated on the moist ground of the Nile Delta region, which was unsuitable for large buildings.)
The Midrash’s comments are often understood to mean that the Egyptians intentionally forced Benei Yisrael to perform useless, unproductive labor in order to crush both their bodies and their spirits. If Benei Yisrael had actually built cities (as the simple meaning of the text implies), they would have at least derived some degree of satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor, an impressive final product in which to take some pride. The Egyptians sought to deny the slaves even this level of gratification, and so they forced them to not simply perform grueling labor, but perform futile grueling labor, that produced no results.
However, it has also been suggested that the Midrash here does not, in fact, describe entirely futile work. Rather, the Midrash means that the city repeatedly collapsed until, eventually, it was able to stand. The city fell down numerous times, but in the end, an enduring city was finally produced. According to this interpretation, the Midrash conveys the powerful lesson that efforts which at first appear futile are, in fact, valuable, as they bring us closer to our ultimate goal. So often in life, failure – and even repeated failure – is a stepping stone to success. Many goals which people achieve are reached only after numerous failed attempts, after they watched the products of their intensive labor “collapse” time and time again. The Midrash’s description of the city built by Benei Yisrael draws our attention to the fact that even when it seems our efforts have been invested in vain, they will, eventually, yield results if we remain determined and persistent. We must not be discouraged by the “collapse” of our efforts, and should instead recognize that the road to great success almost invariably passes through numerous moments of failure and disappointment.