Judaism is a spiritual path, a set of practices intended to facilitate living an awakened life. Passover is the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, the holiday of freedom. During the Passover Seder, Jewish parents tell a story to their children about their ancestors journey from slavery and bondage to freedom, a tale that has been passed down from Jewish parent to child for over 2,500 years. In the Haggadah, the book used to guide the telling of the story, it says “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as though they personally went out of Egypt.” According to the Jewish mystical teachings of Hasidut, this passage means the journey from slavery to freedom is also spiritual, and is one that every person in every generation must make.
Often, I feel like a slave. Almost every day I look at something painful on my computer screen that makes me want to cry out. Whether it be the destruction of the rain forest, beautiful marine life tortured and choked by pollution, human beings living in poverty, the host of countless other crises that are occurring around the world, an alarm bless goes off inside me and I feel called to do something. My heart feels torn because I don’t want that which I love, which I am a part of, to experience suffering, to be destroyed, whether it be due to humankind’s unconscious behavior or otherwise. I want to live in a world that is free, that is a reflection of the highest good for all beings, for all of the the web of life. Than I see the causes of these problems are so much bigger than me and I begin to feel small and powerless, that its pointless for me to try to make a difference and often this leads to cynicism and bitterness. A sense of learned helplessness sets in and I become numb to my true self which to desires to change the world for the better. I quit believing in goodness, my inner light dims, and I begin to go through the motions of living and accepting the fallen state of the world as “that’s just the way it is.”
The Jewish spiritual teachings concerning Passover focus on how through tapping into the Infinite One, a person can emancipate themselves from slavery both spiritually and physically. It says in the Passover Haggadah, “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt.” The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mizrayim (מצרימ). The Hebrew root of the word Mizrayim is mayzar (מצר), which means “constriction.” Being a slave in Egypt means being stuck in constricted consciousness. Not free to be ones self, not free to live an authentic life. Mizrayim is associated with living in fear, unconsciously, habitually, akin to mindlessly running on a gerbil wheel, lost in the narrow constricted confines of the ego.
The word “Pharoah” is also interesting. Jewish tradition teaches that there is a connection between two concepts based on the letters they share, and this connection is called a remez, a “hint.” In Hebrew, Pharoah is spelled פרעה, the root letters of which are פ (Peh), ר (Reish) and ע (Ayin), and in Hebrew the word for neck is oref(עורף). Pharoah spelled backwards is oref — ע (Ayin), ר (Reish), ף (final Peh). What is the connection between Pharoah and “neck”? At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, when Moses spoke to the Children of Israel about freedom, the Torah says that they did not even understand what Moses was saying because of “shortness of breath and hard work.” During states of trauma and anxiety a person will hold their breath in order to “numb out,” and under stress the neck is often the seat of great muscular tension. The neck is the bridge between the mind and the heart. Pharoah is the force that chokes our necks and stops us from breathing, from connecting our heads our hearts, from thinking, and keeps us in a state of “fight or flight,” disconnection and unconsciousness, i.e. a slave.
According the Kabbalah, the spiritual quality that is associated with Passover, with freedom, is Chesed, which can be translated as “loving kindness.” Rabbi Sholom Brodt, the head of Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, teaches that one of the best ways to prepare for the holiday of Passover is to give tzedaka (charity) and to give selflessly without any expectation of return. This is because the root of the Children of Israel’s liberation from slavery was giving, the opposite of selfish grasping. In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus it says:
And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Mizrayim died: and the children of Israel groaned because of their bondage and they cried out. Their outcry because of the bondage went up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the Children of Israel; and God knew.
Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook, one of the great Jewish leaders and mystics of the 20th century, writes in one of his poems, “I am a servant of the King, not a slave of slaves.” As long as we are solely seeking to gratify our desires, we have to do what somebody else wants us to do, to get what we want, we are not free. When we become a servant of God when we desire to align our will with the Infinite will and give Love, then we see that the power of Pharoah is an illusion, and the door to freedom opens.
There is a teaching that all forms of communication are an expression of love or a cry for help. The thread common to much of the problems in the world — from pollution to poverty to war — is human beings. Human beings creating suffering because they are acting unconsciously. It’s easy to cynically dismiss much of human race as beyond hope but this unconsciousness is really a form of groaning, of crying out for help, calling out for love. If I want to start to change the world all I need to do is start loving the human being next to me. Rabbi Brodt teaches, in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, that we must never give up on the goodness of human beings, because it’s when we give up that we end up imprisoned in our own fear, in Mizrayim. That when we are able to see all human beings as good, as deserving love and we wish to be of loving service to their highest selves, then when we become free no matter what circumstance we are in.
Over the holiday of Passover, a special prayer is chanted, which includes the words, “From the narrows, I called out to God and God answered me with expansiveness.” May God bless us to hear our hearts, to hear the groan of enslavement to fear, and to know the time has come to answer with Love and to journey into freedom.