IT’S NOT WHAT YOU FACE, BUT HOW YOU RESPOND TO IT, THAT COUNTS ON THE JOURNEY OF LIFE.
By Rabbi Chay Amar
The Burning Bush [Transformation] The liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt began with contemplation. Moses not only saw but also stopped to study the phenomenon of a bush burning but never consumed by the flames. G-d saw that Moses had reached a level above, for while the others passed by (not even noticing the phenomenon), Moses saw, stopped and analyzed. G-d knew that only a man like Moses—able to reflect and act upon his objective, determined and free—could liberate others, and thus G-d chose him to be the liberator of his people from slavery.
The oppression of the Israelites was absolute, permeating every level of their collective being. They were robbed of time to think, not allowed to express themselves, having to ceaselessly move—to “tote that barge and lift that bale,” as the Paul Robeson song goes. None of us (at least in the Western World) has experienced that degree of darkness. Or have we? Slavery forces a human being to become a human doer. Unfortunately, today we enslave ourselves by ceaselessly running after our careers and our obsessions, never stopping to think.
Freedom is the ability to stop and think and prioritize—to focus on what is truly important. You may consciously decide that your number-one priority is your career. Or you may decide that your number-one priority is your family.
Freedom is the ability to do that instead of mindlessly responding to the pressure of the moment. Freedom is the power to be able to think before you eat, to think before you speak, and to master everything you do instead of being a slave to it all.
Slave Mentality [The obstacle to growth]
Truth be told, we are all slaves to something. For some, it’s addiction to career; for others, it’s addiction to various substances; for still others, it’s the inability to back off when we get aggravated and lose our temper. So we work to free ourselves from our own personal Egypt. It is interesting that the Hebrew word for Egypt—Mitzrayim—comes from the word metzarim, meaning “narrow/limited.” Yet it is fascinating that once we free ourselves from our limitations, we often experience a strange problem. We often shoot ourselves in the foot. We self-destruct. The explanation to why we sabotage our newly achieved freedom—and the solution to this problem—also comes from the experience of the Israelites. When they arrived at the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army pursuing them from behind, they panicked. And basically, their responses were divided into four groups, each wanting to proceed a different way. Group One said,“Let’s give ourselves up and go back.” Group Two said, “Let’s fight.” Group Three said, “Let’s jump in the sea and drown.” Group Four said, “Let’s pray.”
The first group was all too ready to go back to Egypt, despite the horrors they experienced there because—”as most people do”—they preferred the familiar to the unknown. Imagine living on skid row for 200 years, which is about the amount of time that the Israelites spent in Egypt. Generation after generation gets habituated to people looking unkempt, acting in a bizarre fashion, exhibiting all manner of perversion. And suddenly someone comes along and says, “The time of your redemption has come, my friends, we’re getting out of here at last.” In a New York minute, they are in a different place, but their mind-set has not kept up with their change of circumstances.
Hence, when the Israelites left Egypt, Egypt did not leave them. They continued to be imprisoned—not by cruel taskmasters, but by their own slave mentality. This is why freedom is not just the absence of bars, but the ability to think freely. Free your mind, and you will free yourself.
Fight or Flight
The second group was a group that thought this was the time to fight. They said, “Our slavers are pursuing us. Let’s take a stand and take them on.” There is nothing wrong with that, except that it implies stopping, not moving forward, and turning around to face the onslaught.
What’s the core problem with this mentality? Ego. It is the ego that does not allow the person to accept the past for what it is— the past—but constantly wants to dissect it, while looking to place blame for its shortcomings on a circumstance or on someone else, be it parents, teachers, ex-spouses, a financial crisis, etc. The result is that the owner of this ego never grows from his or her experiences, never moves forward to ascend to a higher level of social or spiritual functioning, and may slide backwards, like the person who loses weight on a diet and then regains with interest. With its selfcentered focus, the ego is not able to recognize that this absorption with the past is making things worse in the long run.
Splitting the Sea of Despair The third group, having given in to despair, wanted to jump in the sea and drown.
This is totally against the Talmudic teaching to never give up. The 19th-century Hassidic Master Tzemach Tzedek taught that it is not permissible to be depressed. When things went terribly awry, it was only permissible to be bitterly frustrated. How did he define the difference? He saw depression (atzvut) as withdrawing from the world and making excuses; he saw bitter frustration (merirut) as being upset enough to seek a solution.
Now, most of us do not feel enough despair to want to commit suicide, but we do withdraw from the world and give in to an inner malaise. Ever watch an enjoyable program on television while feeling thirsty? Your thirst bothers you and does not permit you to fully enjoy what you are watching. But it doesn’t bother you enough to make you get out of your seat and get a glass of water. This is a metaphor for those who are not comfortable with the way they are leading their lives but who just can’t get up and do something about it.
When you are feeling like sinking in the sea of malaise, you must get angry and create inner frustration. You must say, “I can’t stand being like this anymore!” That kind of declaration will help you make a breakthrough and ascend to the next level. That’s why, according to the Torah, a day does not start in the morning but in the evening, as we read in the Genesis creation story: “There was evening, there was morning, day one.” A Jewish day is meant to begin in the evening, when you sit down to examine your actions of the previous 24 hours and how you will use your experiences to transform yourself during the next 24 hours. You know you could have done better, and you are determined to do it tomorrow. With that inner frustration building while you sleep, you recharge your soul batteries, and start afresh moving forward when you wake up. Now, you are revved up and ready to move forward.
Prayer [Potentiates Action]
The fourth group opted for another kind of flight: turn it all over to God. Pray. Prayer is essential but as an adjunct to—not as a substitute for—action.
It’s good to pray and have faith, but you must also create a vessel for that faith. You have to make every human possible effort and be able to say to God, “You know what, God, it’s in Your hands, because I’ve done everything I could do.”
The Midrash relates that one by the name of Nahshon responded to G-d’s response to Moses. He walked into the water, certain that if he did his part God would deliver, and at that moment the sea split, enabling the Israelites to escape from the Egyptian army. The apparent insurmountable challenge of the Red Sea was dissolved through action.
I once spoke to a man who survived 14 years in a gulag (isolation camp) in Siberia during the Soviet domination of Russia. I asked him, “What is the optimal way to advance in life?” And he answered with exactly what the story of Nahshon teaches us: “The best solution to any problem is to engage in purposeful action.” Action moves you forward. It takes you upward.
Each time you reach a plateau, you must ask yourself, ‘What’s my next step?” Now, you could argue that this means you are never happy, because you are always looking forward. But that’s not true, as there is a big difference between being happy and being satisfied. You can be happy, but you don’t have to be too satisfied, resting on your laurels and digging yourself into a rut, which will soon become your next Mitzrayim if you don’t use it as a stepping stone to greater things.