“And they placed upon them taskmasters lema’an anoto, in order to afflict them in their burdens” (Shemot 1:11). This inuei, affliction is the first act of the Egyptians once they made the decision to enslave the Jewish people. To afflict people and make people suffer is most terrible and the Torah implores us to learn from our experience in Egypt. “V’Ger lo toneh, you shall not afflict a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot 22:20). Immediately thereafter the Torah warns us; “do not afflict a widow nor an orphan. If you afflict them and they cry out to Me I will surely hear their cry”. As Rashi notes the prohibition of inuei to cause pain to others applies to all –the Torah specifically prohibits it by the weak and unprotected members of society who are often taken advantage of by others.
Complete fulfillment of this stricture requires great effort. Inuei, affliction can take on many forms. Delaying justice is known as inuei hadin – and it should be readily apparent why before the Aseret Hadibort could be given the Torah details Yitro’s instructions to Moshe to set up a multi layered court system to prevent any backlog allowing for immediate justice; justice delayed is justice denied.
Jewish law mandates a convicted murderer be executed on the very next day so that he may not suffer from needless anguish. Ona’at devarim, needless mental anguish, can be done with something as simple as asking a salesperson the price of an object one has no intent to purchase. In a frightening piece the Mechilta notes that we must avoid both ineui merubah inuei muat, a lot of affliction and a little affliction. The Midrash relates that when Rabi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael – the first of the asara harugei malchut the ten martyrs murdered by the Romans– were being led to their deaths Rabbi Shimon asked Rabbi Yishmael “my heart goes out as I do not know why I am being killed”. Rabbi Yishmael answered him ‘did it never happen that a person came to you with a question and you told them to wait until you finished your drink, or tied your shoes or put on your shirt – the Torah says ‘im aneh teaneh, if you afflict afflict them, – whether a little affliction or a lot of affliction’. He said to him ‘ my teacher you have comforted me’.
It should thus be quite shocking to read How G-d did exactly that to the Jewish people. Moshe in exhorting the Jewish people to follow in G-d’s ways says that G-d made us wander in the desert for forty years “lema’an anotecha, in order to afflict you….He afflicted you and let you go hungry” (Devarim 8:2-3). If we may not even cause inuei to a murderer how can G-d do so to the Jewish people?
It is not excessive work or pain and suffering that is so terrible. It is when such happens for no reason. There are many who work as hard as slaves – but they do so voluntarily and moreover are the beneficiaries of such work. And the greater benefit they provide for others the greater their own personal reward. It is avodat perech, needless work that the Egyptians made us perform and it is needless work, what today we call busy work, which the Torah prohibits. People are willing to endure much pain for a noble cause – childbirth being the most obvious example. Yes G-d made us suffer but there was a purpose; “so that you should know that man does not live by bread alone, but by that which emanates form G-d’s mouth does man life”(8:3).
Often it takes hardship to bring out the best in people. “You should know in your heart that as one chastises his son so does G-d chastise you”. And it is this chastisement that was needed so that a band of slaves could give way to great nation to enter “a good land a land of flowing streams and underground springs… a land of wheat barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates, of oil olives and date honey…it is a land where you will no teat rationed bread and you will not lack anything” (8:7-9).
Hard work can be very good and great difficulties can be ennobling.
Moshe who unlike any of us did have a direct line to the Almighty could tell the Jewish people why they had to endure such hardships. We today are not so lucky (or perhaps we are luckier!). We must try ourselves to understand not why affliction strikes but what message we might learn from such hardship and affliction. And like Rabbi Shimon and RabbiYishmael we should probably begin by focusing on how we can treat others with even greater honour and respect.
 This story should not be understood to mean that making someone wait a few moments makes one worth of death, G-d forbid. Rather great people are always looking to develop their character and see suffering as a means to improve themselves – even in the minutest of details
 For an analysis of busy work in the modern day economy see Aaron Levin, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, chapter 5.