The Torah in Parashat Shemot (1:14) tells that the Egyptians imposed upon Benei Yisrael “avoda kasha” – “hard labor.” The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (11b) cites one view explaining this expression to mean “that they would transfer men’s work to women, and women’s work to men.” As the Egyptians’ aim was not the product of Benei Yisrael’s labor, but rather to crush their spirits in order to subdue and humiliate them, they distributed tasks not in a manner that would maximize efficiency, but in a way that maximized suffering. To that end, the Egyptians specifically assigned the wrong jobs to the wrong people – forcing men to do work for which women were more naturally suited, and forcing women to do work that was more naturally suited for men. This system, quite obviously, compromised the slaves’ productivity, but it had the desired effect of intensifying the people’s frustration and angst, as they needed to struggle to perform tasks for which they were ill-suited.
Unfortunately, many people endure a type of self-imposed “slavery” by forcing themselves to make commitments and pursue goals which are not appropriate for them. They look to other people’s lives as the models of who they should be, how they need to live, what they, their homes and their families need to look like, and what they need to accomplish, such that they become “enslaved” to those models. And they then end up spending their lives struggling to fit into a mold that is not right for them, trying to be people who they are not meant to become, and undertaking tasks for which they are unfit. Not all people are naturally suited for the same occupation, the same social habits, the same pastimes, or the same courses of study. Not all people are meant to achieve the same financial status, or spend their resources of time and money the same way. All people are different and are naturally inclined to lead different lives and do things in different ways. If we feel pressure to follow models set by other people for which we are not suited, we essentially “enslave” ourselves, and will find ourselves feeling unhappy, unfulfilled and frustrated, forced into a life that we are not meant to live.
The cruelty of the Egyptians towards Benei Yisrael perhaps alerts us not to treat ourselves with this same kind of cruelty, not to impose upon ourselves tasks which we are not cut out for, and to instead enjoy the most precious aspect of freedom – the freedom to maximize our own unique talents and our own unique potential, and to make the decisions and reach for the goals that we truly believe are right for us.