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10 Jan 2018

Three Steps to Freedom

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Insights on Exodus and the Torah Portion of Bo

I’ll cut to the chase. When you want to leave Egypt, there’s no time to lose. For according to the mystics, Egypt is the archetype of limitation.[1] Each of us is bound by both internal and cosmic constraints. We come into the world with a soul profile that pretty much defines our spiritual, intellectual and emotional inclinations. It predisposes us to be a person of expansiveness or constraint, a doer or a thinker and the like. Then there’s the head space generated by our place of birth, our cultural assumptions and bias. The nuclear family further imprints our way of being in the world. And of course, there’s our personal biochemistry. All these factors subtly determine the choices we make on a daily basis – the way we interact with others, the line of work we are drawn to, our defense mechanisms and beliefs about the world. Mostly, we’re unconscious of this underlying structure and so we live a reactive life rather than proactively creating the world we live in. “Getting out of Egypt” means I become consciously aware and free myself of these limitations, living the infinite life I’m capable of.
 
The seder is a template for getting out. That means we must continuously re-enact it not only in each generation, but each day we have the blessing to be here on planet earth. So let’s take a look at one verse that relates how we were instructed by the Infinite Creator to partake of the seder. It plots a three-step program for true freedom.
 
The Torah relates, “You must eat the Pascal Sacrifice with your hips girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand.”[2] Some people, particularly sefardim, actually conduct the seder “belted.” But even for those who don’t do it physically, there’s a spiritual correlation to leaving Egypt. Let’s take a look at what those are.

Step One: Belt your Hips

Our hips form the sacrum. They’re the fulcrum from which movement occurs, and the basis of support for the entire body. Hips have the power and strength to support and sustain the highest aspect of the body, our head, as well as our arms, with which we engage with the world and manifest our desire.
This physical reality serves as a metaphor apropos the soul. At the spiritual level, the hips symbolize pure belief in G-d. For it is faith that upholds and sustains the “head,” or intellect. Faith thus supports the highest use of mind, namely to contemplate and meditate deeply on the greatness of G-d and His infinite Identity. But it doesn’t stop there because the end goal of all that meditation is to make a real change, a transformation that manifests in daily life. We contemplate in order to give birth to love and fear of G-d, thereby in turn generating behavioral shifts. To extend our metaphor, love and fear are the arms and body of the soul.[3] This is what our sages meant when they said, “(The prophet) Habakkuk came and set (all the commandments) up on one, as it says, ‘The righteous person lives by his faith.'” For faith is the foundation of everything. The sacrum forms the hips of the soul.
 
Hips alone though are not enough to support the body. We need our muscular belt to be intact. Just look at the popularity of Pilates and you begin to get a sense of how powerful strengthening the core muscles is. What does it mean to strengthen our metaphysical belt? How do we fortify faith and enable our sacrum to support and sustain the head and hands? Through the study of the Oral Torah, specifically the laws that govern life.[4]
 
It seems counter-intuitive. How does something as “down-to-earth” as action, so seemingly devoid of spiritual energy, strengthen our loftiest ability, the capacity to believe in G-d? Firstly, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that action is divorced from spirit. The commandments are not rituals. They are physical acts that capture G-d’s essence. They are the quantum leap between me and my Creator. For if I travel even a million miles towards infinity, I’ve gotten no closer. To transcend creation and bond with G-d, to defy the limits of my earthly existence, I need to engage with the deeds that G-d Himself has mandated. It’s in those mundane acts that He invests His innermost being.
 
At another level, the sages are not even addressing the performance of the commandments. They’re talking simply of learning about them. I’ve seen it countless times – in others and myself. Opening up a code of Jewish law connects us with the mystical revelation associated with the giving of the Torah. The letters on the page were written by legal authorities using precedent and laws that can be traced back to that very moment of Divine revelation. And even if we don’t think of that fact consciously in the moment, the black fire of the letters on the white fire of the page burn into our being and awaken our faith. In so doing, our consciousness and ability to love and respect are empowered.
 
That’s why G-d instructed us to leave Egypt belted. At the time of the exodus we were bereft of soul wealth. We lived in a world of spiritual scarcity. We had no merit. That’s what the prophet Ezekiel means when he said, “You were naked and bare.”[5] The only thing we had going for us was our faith. Somehow, despite the fact that all evidence pointed to our collapsing into physical and mental subordination to the forces of the natural world, we managed to envision a new reality. We were capable of such vision and the ability to act illogically in the face of obstacles because we had faith.[6] We believed that no matter how bad things were, G-d could redeem us and we were intrinsically worthy of that. In this light, G-d said, “If getting out of hell is dependent on your faith, you’d better get strengthen the ability. Gird your loins. Engage in study.”
 
If you really want to leave Egypt today – and you’re obligated to – “gird your loins.” Or as the dictionary suggests, “summon up your inner resources in preparation for action.” Pick up a book that describes life for a Jew. What’s the day supposed to look like from waking in the morning to hitting the pillow at night. Try the stories of the Talmud, or even the logical reasoning of the sages that forms the backbone of all legal rulings. It’ll boost your faith, enliven your heart, and give you a lift out of limitation.

Step Two: Put your Shoes on your Feet

The next phase of attaining freedom has to do with with how the different aspects of ourselves interact. We need to establish a working relationship between our higher and lower self. And the process is analogous to wearing shoes!
 
From health shoes to stilettos, shoes have two things in common: they’re a garment for the foot and they’re generally made of leather. It doesn’t “just happen.” Crafting a pair of shoes takes work and effort – and the use of sharp chemicals. But when all’s done, you have an item of clothing. Think about it for a moment. One takes the rough hide of an animal and works and reworks it until something utilitarian, and often beautiful, is made to protect and enhance the wearer. An animals skin adorns a person.
 
What’s all this got to do with being liberated you ask? Even more so, why the emphasis that we actually wear the shoes? Is having them in the closet not enough? In Jewish law actually, once the garment is on the body, it’s nullified to it. If the body becomes impure, the shoe does too because no matter how striking a dress, a blouse, a shoe – each exists to serve the body. Clothing thus loses its independent identity once worn.
 
What does all this mean apropos leaving Egypt? The answer lies in understanding the metaphysical correlation to shoes.
 
Each of us is multifaceted. We have a base self. This animal soul suffers from the delusion of existing outside of G-d, it’s selfish and driven by the desire for gratification. Then there’s the G-dly soul, our higher being. This true self yearns for oneness with the Infinite G-d, is selfless and free of compulsion for worldly things. One might think that rejecting the lower self is the way of the scholars and mystics. But this is not the case. The very purpose of the higher soul is to refine the animal so as to make it a vessel for truth and G-dliness. Our sages comment on the verse, “Love G-d with all your heart.”[7] In Hebrew, the word for heart is written in the plural form. So the literal meaning is, “Love G-d with all your hearts.” The reason for this, they say, is that G-d is telling us to love him with both our inclinations.[8] With our menial and lofty selves.
 
In other words, we’re looking to work the animal within in such a way that it becomes a garment for who we truly are. The goal is to capture its imagination and direct its latent passions in the direction of the Divine. We’re not going to turn it into a G-dly soul. And that’s not the goal. But we do want at the very least to awaken the natural, or instinctive, love within. When done, you’ve crafted a spiritual shoe because the hide of the animal is now serving the G-dly soul.
 
In a sense, each of us must become a spiritual tanner. And just as with the crafting of a pair of shoes you have to use a sharp chemical, so too in the service of G-d. Progress requires celebrating where you’re gifted. But that alone is insufficient. At times we draw closer to our goal through a kind of holy harshness. As our sages teach us, “A person should always agitate the good inclination over the evil one.[9] Even though we’d rather it were different, the truth is there is a time for honest self assessment, bitter as the process may be.
 

However – and it’s a big but – the essence of serving G-d must be with joy and not agitation. Prior to our actual service, we need the “sourness.” When you’re first standing up to serve G-d, let’s say to pray, you need to prepare yourself for the conversation. You haven’t yet softened the animal skin. You’re in a state of consciousness comparative to the Jews prior to leaving Egypt sitting at the seder table and wearing shoes. You have yet to escape and so a measure of critical assessment and honest appraisal is in order. The “but” is that the shoes be on the feet. Once on, they’re nullified to the wearer. That boils down to, “Take a moment for bitterness. Be a spiritual tanner and soften your leather with something caustic. But never forget that the process of wearing down your coarseness, and any sadness that entails, is subordinate to the service of joy. The bitter phase must be nullified to the essential aspect of serving G-d with joy. 

Step Three: Hold on to your Staff:

This last step entails dialogue with ourselves and engaging the mind in meditation.
The staff, or rod, is associated with a dog, as the Talmud says, “One trains a dog with a stick.”[10]  In order to understand this, we must first address the difference between a dog and other animals. There are kosher animals that can be offered to G-d on the alter. In other words, even thought it’s an animal, we can elevate it to sanctity. Then there are non-kosher animals. They can’t be brought as offerings but if you sell them, the revenue can be used to buy a kosher animal that may be used as an offering. With a dog however, even the money earned from selling one is forbidden for purchase of an animal go be offered on the altar. This is because there’s a willfulness and excitement in a dog that just cannot be tamed. Unless its guided with a stick.
 
 
The same applies with regard to the animal soul. As mentioned, the animal soul is primarily emotive. It has no connection to intellect. Think of it as “an old and foolish king.”[11] And yet, this soul still has dimensions you can talk to. With effort and time, you can capture it with explanations. Having caught its attention and opened it to a new reality, you can elevate it to G-d. Its your personal inner kosher animal.
But there is another aspect of your animal which is like a dog. In Hebrew “dog” is kelev. This can be re-vocalized as kulo lev, or “all heart.” This is the aspect of a person that has lowered itself so profoundly into forbidden pleasures that it loses the aspect of “pure animal.” It becomes “chutzpadik as a dog.”[12] It no longer has a connection to intellect. And the only way to approach this part of ourselves is to “hit it with a stick.”
We’re not talking abuse though. The metaphysical strike actually refers to speech. The archetypical model of this is an incident that occurred with Moses whilst he was still in Egypt. He saw an Egyptian beating a Jew to the point of death and prevailed upon him to stop. When he refused, Moses “hit” the Egyptian.[13] Rashi tells us that what this means is that he struck and killed him through enunciating G-d’s name.[14]
Applying this to our inner world, striking evil with speech means we must thunder against our ego and delusions. We must challenge ourselves. Merely naming the illness does much to diminish its damage. And then we have to ask it questions, “How long will you conceal the light of G-d from me?”[15] Shake it up with language. That done, we can tell it the truth. The message we give our animal is, “The truth is that the entire world is not a self-sufficient entity. G-d may not be apparent. He’s embedded within the atoms of existence but He directs everyting. The whole world is nothing in relation to him. One day this will become manifest and you’ll be able to see it with fleshly eyes. ‘G-d’s glory will be revealed and all flesh will jointly see that the mouth of G-d has spoken.'”
 
In the language of Kabbalah, “the mouth of G-d has spoken” refers to G-d’s most definitive statement, the first commandment. “I am G-d your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” The word for the first “G-d” in the verse is Havaye. This name of the Creator alludes to G-d as He transcends time and the limitations of world.[16] Our work is to grasp this infinite beyondness and internalize it. We have to take the level of Havaye and make it “(our) G-d” – “(our) strength and vitality.”[17] This consciousness, that we are not bound in any way by the limitations of the world, becomes our strength and vitality. It transforms our reality and effects a personal exodus from Egypt.
 
So we pick up the stick of language and thought patterns and thunder against our animal. We cry out, “Until when will you conceal the truth from me, and get me to buy in to the limitations and boundaries of worldly conduct?” Just as Moses did to the Egyptian, we disempower our animal soul with the name of G-d, the name Havaye. We train it with words and meditate on the G-dliness that transcends the world. And thereby generate a Divine light that rectifies our animal self.
 
You can find release today. Put on your belt: learn the laws that govern daily life, thereby fortifying faith. Lace up your shoes: Engage in refining the animal soul with acerbic introspection but always ensure that any bitterness is subordinate to the cardinal principle of being happy as we strive for truth. And pick up a stick: Talk to your lower self and reframe its way of looking at the world by meditating on the fact that although you’re born into a world of limitation, you exist beyond the dimensions of the world.
Happy travels!
1. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The word for limitations is meitzarim.
2. Exodus, parshat Bo 12,11
3. Tanya, Igeres Hakodesh Siman 1
4. This is the meaning of “She girds her hips with strength” Proverbs 31,17
5. Ezekiel 16,7
6. As we read in Mechilta on Parshat Beshalach 12,31, “Our forefathers were redeemed in the merit of their faith.”
7. Deuteronomy, Parshat Vaetchanan 6,5
8. Shmos Rabba 9,2
9. Brachot 5,271
10. Shmos Rabba 9.2
11. Ecclesiastes 4,13
12. See Yishayahu 56,11, “The dogs are greedy, they do not know satiation.
13. Exodus 2,12
14. Rashi on Exodus 2,14
15. Tanya chapter 29
16. Havaye is etymologically connected to haya (was), hoveh (is) and yi’heye (will be)
17. Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar 16
  
Originally posted on www.thejewishwoman.org


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