For the second Shabbat of Passover.
There have been many times in my life when I just felt stuck. Stuck in a job, stuck in my family’s circumstances, stuck in a particular emotional state. It just didn’t seem like anything was ever going to change. We all feel that way at some point or other in our lives. As larger groups or national entities, we can feel stuck in political gridlock or a set of circumstances that do not seem to offer hope of a way out.
Passover is the holiday of getting unstuck. The Israelites lived in slavery for hundreds of years in Egypt, completely dominated by Pharoah and his regime. But the message of the biblical Exodus is that what is, now, does not have to be what is in the future — and change is possible at any moment.
The Hasidic master Rav Nachman of Bratslav relates change to memory:
In order to protect memory, one needs to not to see with a stingy eye which is related to a dead heart. The essence of memory is related to seeing, as is written: And it shall be a sign on your arm and a remembrance between your eyes so that the Torah of God will be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand God brought you out of Egypt. — Exodus 13:9
The memory Rav Nachman is talking about is the soul’s memory that there is more to this world than just what we see. There is a spiritual dimension at the source of all life. A “stingy eye” refers to seeing things and events as disconnected and without meaning — a way of seeing that both contributes to and is a result of a dead heart, one that does not sense the spiritual power that lies latent in every moment.
Often, the key to understanding Rav Nachman’s teachings is to look closely at the biblical verses he uses as sources. What is it that is a “remembrance between your eyes”? This phrase is read by rabbinic tradition as referring to tefilin, the ritual black boxes worn with leather straps on the head (and also on the arm) during morning prayers, and containing verses about the Exodus from Egypt. We are to remember that “with a mighty hand God brought you out of Egypt.”
The Exodus was a profound, mind-blowing occasion of God’s bursting into history and nature to free the Jewish people. It is the paradigmatic event in our people’s history of God’s presence being manifest in daily life. We are not instructed in the biblical text to remember the giving of Torah at Sinai multiple times a day as we are the Exodus, even though God also appeared at Sinai. Sinai might be thought of as similar to the epiphany one gets on a spiritual retreat, removed from our regular, daily experience, but the experience in Egypt — as dramatic as it was — more closely relates to regular life.
In Egypt, the Jewish people felt stuck by the heavy reality of slavery. While we thankfully are no longer slaves, surely many of us feel stuck at one time or another in our lives, whether because of our relationships, our jobs or our mental patterns and habits. The Exodus teaches us that we are never stuck by our reality. Change and growth are always possible. Because the deeper spiritual reality of God and the power of change is never separate from daily life.
This ability to grow and change is the essence of the soul. But it is so easy to forget. Traditional Jewish prayer has us repeat twice a day the verse from the Book of Numbers: “… do not follow after your heart and eyes that you go astray after.” Seen through the wisdom of Rav Nachman, we might read this as: Do not follow after your dead heart that does not recognize that change is always possible, and your stingy eyes that see life as meaningless.
The verses that follow tell us to be holy, and that God took us out of Egypt to be a God to us. Living a holy life is living with the full awareness that God gave us the ability to always grow and change. This power never stops until the day we die. This is what it means to be alive.
The Exodus was our archetypal national experience of the power of change. We recall it every day in Jewish prayer, and every year during Passover, to renew our own faith in the deeper reality that nothing is ever permanently stuck, and nothing is ever really final in a world blessed by God’s presence.
May this time of liberation bring you renewed commitment to your own growth and the possibility of change in this broken world.