Passover is a holiday that celebrates both physical freedom and spiritual freedom.
As a pastoral counselor at Westchester Jewish Community Services, I meet occasionally with people who, like the slave in Exodus 21, choose not to go free even when the opportunity is presented to them. I’m not merely referring to the obvious “bondages” of unhealthy relationships or addictions. I’m referring to the more subtle attachments we might carry such as: (1) an inability to free ourselves or our loved ones of certain distortions of reality (“I’m not smart/good enough,” “She’s never responsible/will never do it right,” or “He’s the brains in the family.”); (2) other seemingly intransigent mindsets, such as “the cup is half empty” or “life is only about pain and then we die;” or (3) the perpetuation and entrenchment of resentments and hurts that might have been unburdened long ago but have remained intractable.
Spiritual freedom is about taking an honest look at our fall-back, mindless routines and choosing mindful, life-affirming habits. As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld discusses in A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, our most basic routine of eating bread, something we take for granted for most of the year, is, in fact, a kind of enslavement. Not eating bread on Pesach is the first step of our liberation in that it shakes up our routine, liberating us from auto-pilot. Everything is worthy of examination, since our enslavements occur in the most mundane of ways.
What other habits, so engrained that we never question them, should we be examining and perhaps changing?
According to Howard Polsky, author of Everyday Miracles: The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories, “The distinctive mark of liberation is the freeing of your imagination to host new possibilities in coping with your situation. Liberation begets new choices; it frees you from compulsively acting the way you always have and thereby deepening your misery.”
Who wouldn’t want to act thoughtfully rather than compulsively? Yet we often willingly choose familiar suffering (a.k.a. mindless habit) even when another path is available. The solution is to give yourself spiritual exercises to free yourself from the tried-and-not-so-true voices of habit, despair, or pettiness. Next time you catch yourself in a distortion of reality or a mindset that is ripe for a makeover, try to change the pattern. Most essential is to discern if you are truly ready to be freed of the burden of that particular enslavement.
The Jewish mystics understood Egypt to be not only a geographical place but also a symbol of constricted consciousness. In fact, the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means narrowness and constriction. Let us not limit ourselves and our options by constricting and narrowing our vision and perspective, our actions and behaviors. Let us not be like the slave who refuses to go free when given the opportunity. G-d gave us freedom to choose our every act, our every word. Let us choose wisely, in great freedom.
Wishing you safe journeys out of Egypt. Chag sameach.
Rabbi Pamela Wax is the spiritual care coordinator at Westchester Jewish Community Services, where she runs the WJCS Jewish Spiritual Healing Center, offering spiritual counseling, spiritual support groups, and other healing services and programs to the Westchester Jewish community. For further information, contact email@example.com, 761-0600 x149.