The story of the Exodus from Egypt is understood in Chasidic teaching as relating to personal growth in overcoming moral or personal limitations. I have an inner Pharaoh who echoes his literal historical counterpart. When Moses suggested some time away from the grind for the Hebrews to go out in to the wilderness to worship and celebrate, Pharaoh became suspicious. He interpreted this request as evidence of laziness (1), instead of giving them a break he demands more productivity while also providing less resources. The increased demands lead to cries of desperation by representatives of the overwhelmed slaves. Pharaoh responded with urgency and anger (2), “you are slackers, slackers (3)! My own Pharaoh worries about me not being productive enough when I take time out for myself or my soul. In recognising this pattern I feel a bit freer, because “knowing the illness is half a remedy”(4).
One important principle that I learned is that while change takes time, changing direction can be quite quick and an important part of the process. This played out with the Hebrews after having been removed from Egypt by external factors God was concerned about them falling back into old patterns and ‘return to Egypt’ (5). The people here are referred to as “the nation” rather than their distinctive name of Benei Yisrael - the Israelites who are descendants of Jacob who was renamed “Israel” to reflect his being a champion with God and men. They were seen as not deserving this title at this time because their faith was incomplete. If they were to attempt to go straight to the Promised Land at this point they would have crumbled at the first challenge (6).
God set the former slaves a challenge and a means to grow. They would go to the Promised Land the long way, by way of a detour into the wilderness. There they would need to develop the quality of being satisfied with very little. They would get Manna every day but only for that day, if they hoarded even a bit extra as some people inevitably did, it stank and was infested with worms (7). On this journey they would encounter their old enemies, the Egyptians at the sea, which would split miraculously allowing the Hebrews to cross while their ‘old problems’ drowned. In this way their faith would be strengthened. Remarkably, the Torah does not wait for the whole drama to play out before celebrating the change. The moment that “the people” signed up for this journey into the uncertainty of the desert, “a land that has not been planted”, their name was immediately changed to Benei Yisrael/the Israelites (8). They had turned away from the pharaoh of certainty and control to the uncertainty of trust.
As the work of 2015 begins, I have turned toward working in a more trusting, less anxious way. I don’t know how it will all come together but I don’t need my inner Pharaoh looking over my shoulder. I am not lazy. I am on to it. With the help of God and some good people, we will achieve important progress toward the goal of coexistence.
1) Exodus 5:8-9
2) Lekach Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 225
3) Exodus 5:17 note Targum translation of Nirpim as “Batlanim”.
4) Attributed to Maimonides, on http://www.tchorim.com/%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%9A/%D7%94%D7%A7%D7%93%D7%9E%D7%94/
5) Exodus 13:17
6) Klei Yakar
7) Exodus 16:20
8) Klei Yakar