I was sitting at lunch with my best friend the other day discussing life. This is her tsuris at the moment: she is involved with a guy who loves her very much, accepts her unconditionally, is cute, bright, Jewish, healthy, loyal. But she knows that he is not the one. She is so afraid to leave him — because she doesn’t want to hurt him, because she doesn’t want to deal with the pain of loss, because she dreads the feeling of loneliness, because she hates to be single, because she doesn’t know where she will meet someone else, because he is “good on paper” and she is afraid if she leaves him she will end up alone forever — doomed to become a spinster.
Then there is her job. She is headed upward in her field; in three years time, she will be at the top of the totem pole. Yet she finishes every day wishing she didn’t have to go back. She feels disconnected from her peers, tied down to obligations and expectations imposed on her by the higher-ups, creatively unfulfilled. But she is so afraid to quit — because she dreads the feeling of being unemployed, because she has no idea what her true calling is, because she hates the idea of being out of work, because the job will pay off in the long run, because she is afraid if she leaves it will be a mistake — leaving her doomed to become an unemployed spinster.
The list goes on: living situation, health, social life.
I can identify with her kvetching. Let’s face it: life can get pretty unsatisfying at times. The dissatisfaction comes from being stuck, from perceiving ourselves as limited to certain parameters of existence — enslaved by these limitations and by the fear of making a change.
Just when we were ready to stuff down our feelings with another double chocolate chip cookie in bed with the TV on, wondering why everyone on “Friends” seems so fulfilled and happy, comes a holiday that says: “Stop! Put down that leavened cookie immediately. Wake up!” It is time to face our circumstances of limitation, entrapment and enslavement and clear them out. Just as we physically left Egypt, so, too, must we emotionally, intellectually and spiritually leave behind us the situation of servitude that we have made our reality. From a place of servitude — of being stuck — we are never going to reach the Promised Land.
Egypt exists beyond its place in the folklore of our history. It also represents any outside force to which we give the power of enslaving us and directing our lives. It is the element that shapes our realities in every moment that we succumb to fear, doubt, laziness and unconsciousness in our daily existences. It is our addictions, our unexpressed emotions, our vanities, our prejudices, our materialism.
As long as we remain constrained in our lives, we only pretend to be living. We choose to exist half-asleep in a futile effort to have stable and safe lives. We define stability by not moving, changing or confronting things that will in any way shake up the tenuous circumstances of our servitude. Eventually, we find ourselves totally stuck: immovable and subjugated by our fear of the unknown. As Rabbi Ted Falcon of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle explains, “The paradox of slavery is that we are safe; there is security in being able to blame the external world for the problems we experience.”
It demands our greatest courage and our strongest faith to choose freedom. With freedom comes true life — a moveable, powerful, transformational state of being. It is freedom from the conviction of our limitations.
Were my friend to give up her enslavement, she would find herself truly alive again. She would exist from a space of courage and power rather than fear, and in this state of freedom, she would have the possibility of creating the perfect relationship and livelihood for herself.
On Passover, we relive the story of our physical liberation. We tell of the gathering of our ancestors in an act of courage and commitment in defiance of the limitations imposed on their lives. We remember how they left their comforts and their attachments behind and marched forth, with the fierce Egyptian army following them, into the Sea of Reeds.
Filled with panic and remorse at the shores of the water, they finally recognize that they will not live if they do not continue to move forward. And so, in the face of a seemingly impossible obstacle, they finally relinquish their hold on the past and the fear of their future and step into the ocean. With the sounds of the Egyptian army quickly approaching, they immerse themselves in courage and faith and nothing else and wade deeper in the water. Washed away of the pretenses of life that defined their servitude, they feel the exhilarating, magical feeling of being truly alive; with the water up to their nostrils they smile in total faith in life, and the waters part. A miracle to greet a miracle.
And while my friend may kvetch and moan on her journey toward completing her limitations, I know that, in the end, she will also walk into the water — with faith and courage and joy — to greet her true life.
May you all be blessed with courage, faith, empowerment and clarity; may you be blessed with freedom.
Karen Dieth is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.