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Pesach VII 5783       April 12, 2023 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

The Israelites, on that first Pesach, left the slave yards of Egypt and quickly “packed their wagons” to get out of town before Pharoah changed his mind again. They had to move out so fast that they didn’t have time to pack a lunch, let alone other food for the trip. Some of the modern commentators are puzzled by this quick Exodus. They had been preparing for two weeks for their first meal of freedom, the meal that would become our Seder, and yet they never packed for the trip? Did they have so little faith in God and in Moses that they didn’t think they needed to prepare for their Exodus?

The Torah tells us that the people departed in haste, that after the final plague, the Egyptians wanted the Israelites out, and the sooner the better. But Rashi, the great Biblical commentator of the 12th century, does not say that Israel left in “haste,” rather they left in a panic, they were disoriented about what they needed to pack for the trip. Imagine how you would feel if suddenly you had only 12 hours to pack to permanently move to the Promised Land. In that moment, “haste” and “panic” are pretty much the same thing.

But something else is going on here as well. The stubbornness of Pharoah is legendary. His fixed answer to the call of Moses to “Let my people go” is a stubborn “NO.” Many times, his advisors try to get him to change his mind and let Israel go already, and sometimes he starts to listen to their advice, but in the end, Pharoah always came back to “NO.” Even after the last plague, the death of his own first-born son, even after he lets the slaves go, it takes a few days, but his stubbornness kicks in again and he decides to chase down the former slaves and bring them back to the brickyards.

Pharoah, however, is not the only stubborn one in this story. The People of Israel are also stubbornly attached to their slavery. Moses not only has to convince Pharoah that the slaves should be free, but Moses also has to convince the slaves that they should want to be free. I have said many times that Moses was unique, an Israelite who grew up in the palace and did not grow up as a slave, that made him the perfect leader to convince the slaves that they should want to be free. For forty years that was an uphill battle. Anytime the going got tough during the trip to the Promised Land, the people yearned to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt, back to the brickyard, and back to their oppression. As hard as it was to get Israel out of Egypt, it was even harder to get Egypt out of the mentality of Israel.

Dr. Mona Fishbane, a clinical psychologist who helps train rabbis, notes that when it comes to human beings, we do not like change. The Israelite slaves could not imagine freedom and so they remained stuck in the story of slavery. It is so easy to get stuck. Robert Fulgum tells a story of sitting in a foreign airport when he noticed a young woman crying. Together with another couple they asked her what had happened. She told them that she was on her way home after a long vacation, she was out of money and all she had was her ticket home. But she had lost her ticket and now she was stuck. She had been sitting for hours, stuck in her troubles, unable to figure out what to do next. The three helpers jumped into action. One started off to see if they could issue another ticket; Fulghum offered to help her call her parents. The woman urged her to come to the nearby food court to get something to eat. Slowly the young woman began to gather her backpack but as soon as she stood up, she screamed. Everyone froze… She had found her ticket. She had been sitting on it all those hours. She gave the helpers a quick hug and ran off to catch her plane.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. It implies a narrow place where one can easily get stuck. Without an ability to change our predicament, we quickly assume that we will remain stuck forever. One of the duties of a rabbi, as well as a clinical psychologist, is to help people see how they can change and get out of the tight places they may be in.

Dr. Fishbane writes, Humans are wired for habit. Our habits are reflected in circuits of neurons in the brain that have become associated; “neurons that fire together wire together.” Habits and these neuronal circuits recursively strengthen each other; the more you do something, the more likely you are to do it in the future. Everything you do changes the brain; you are what you do. This is rather sobering. If you regularly become impatient, angry, or anxious, you are more likely to do so in the future. If you repeatedly close off your heart in arrogance, you will become an arrogant, closed-off person. If you maintain a slave, victim mentality, you will remain a slave—to your habits.”

We read today the account of the parting of the Sea of Reeds. Moses stretches his hands over the water and the water parts, giving the Israelites a path to freedom. The same water that will protect Israel, also destroys their enemies. In the mind of the Talmudic Sages, however, there is a detail missing from this story. The People of Israel did not believe that the waters would part. They refused to set foot in the sea. They lacked the faith in God, and they lacked a true desire for freedom so they refused to believe that the water would part. Only one person, Aaron’s brother-in-law, Nachshon ben Aminadav, ran into the water. Deeper and deeper he went until he was just about ready to drown and then the water parted, and everyone was saved. Courage is the ability to be brave a minute or two longer than everyone else.

We may be wired to cling to our habits, but our brains also have another side we can appeal to as well. Dr. Fishbane also writes, “We are not only wired for habit. We are wired for change as well. Neuroplasticity—the capacity of the brain to change—can continue throughout life. Neuroplasticity isn’t easy in adulthood; research shows that it can be fostered through physical exercise, paying attention, and learning new things.”

Habits have their place in our lives, and so does change. Sometimes it is good to be stubborn and sometimes we need to give up our old habits and enter the scary new world that change offers. A fixed mindset is like the old Popeye cartoon, “I yam what I yam.” But we can also have a growth mindset. We can escape our tight places by setting our minds to change. God goes by the name Eheye asher Eheye, I will be what I will be, it is the epitome of a change mindset. It teaches us that we can evolve, and we can change in the future.

Dr. Fishbane writes her own modern understanding of the Exodus. She writes, “God seems to have understood how hard it is to change, to maintain a new narrative. So we are given daily reminders: mezuzah, tzitzit, tefillin. We are charged to tell and retell the Exodus story every Pesach. Telling the story to our children anchors our own faith, our own commitment to the narrative of freedom. Each year we reflect on the miracle that freedom happened at all, given all the factors pulling toward no-change in our Exodus story, given the resistance from all around.”

Moses understood that our ancestors could not be stuck as slaves forever. Nachshon understood that our ancestors could not be stuck on the shore of the sea. Theodore Herzl understood that our people could not remain a people without a homeland forever. Rabbis of every generation, including this generation, have added and changed prayers in the siddur so we don’t get stuck with the same words to recite over and over without being inspired to change ourselves.

In every generation there are those who do not believe we can change. They prefer a life where they don’t have to make any decisions. They study all day holy books without ever going out in the world to see how God’s world is changing. Can you imagine, someone who comes out of a cult where all decisions are made by the leader, goes to the grocery store for the first time and stands, in terror before the breakfast cereals unable to make a decision as to what he wants for breakfast?  Simon and Garfunkel over 50 years ago, sang about the loneliness of a fixed mindset in their song: I Am An Island:

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries.

Should it be surprising that the Torah commands us on this holiday to teach the story of the Exodus to our children? No matter what the nature of the child might be: Wise, Wicked, Simple, or even the child that does not know how to ask, we are commanded, not suggested, to teach them about the Exodus from Egypt. There is no need for them to ever feel stuck in life. Change is always possible because change is built into our brains. The very name of God, Eheye asher Eheye, I will be what I will be, teaches us, as well as our children, to be open to the possibilities of change.

Slavery and oppression are evil. Human beings are meant to be free. Those who would enslave others must be defeated. But the fixed mindset is also a form of slavery, a type of slavery we impose on ourselves. We have to change our mindset if we are to free ourselves from the tight places where we feel stuck.

May God help us embrace the change that is always all around us. And may we never be afraid to jump into the sea to find our path forward. As we say ….

Amen and Hag Sameach

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784