Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 5 Lessons from the Exodus

Our rabbis teach that we are currently in the final stages before the arrival of the Messiah. We are also told that our future redemption will parallel the redemption from Egypt (derived from Micah 7:15). By understanding what occurred then, we will gain insight into what is occurring now.

Before the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, the hardships of slavery intensified. The Jews used to take for granted that Pharaoh would provide straw for their bricks, but then he demanded that they find this bonding material themselves.

According to Jewish tradition, what occurs in the physical realm parallels the spiritual realm. For the Jews in Egypt, their need to find their own bonder in the physical realm paralleled their need to find their own bonder in the spiritual realm. The Sages teach that before the redemption from Egypt, the Jews did not have sufficient merit to be redeemed. They could not rely on the merit of their Forefathers; they needed to forge their own bond with God. For this reason, God gave them the commandments of circumcision and the Pascal lamb – the slaughtering of the god of the Egyptians – through which they demonstrated their loyalty to their Creator (Rashi, Exodus 12:6).

Perhaps a similar dynamic is occurring today. For centuries, Jews took for granted that they would marry within the faith and maintain a connection with their Jewish heritage. Today, skyrocketing assimilation rates and large numbers of off the derech (formerly observant) youth make clear that we can no longer take this connection with Judaism for granted. To maintain our Jewish identity, like our ancestors in Egypt, we need to forge our own bond with God.

How do we do that?

By doing what worked for the Jews in Egypt. Here are five lessons we can learn from them:

1. Pray. Talking to another deepens the connection. Talking to God will deepen your connection to Him. The Torah says that before God redeemed the Jewish people, He heard their cry (Exodus 2:24). We need to cry out to God, asking Him to bring us closer to Him.

Realize that you cannot do anything without God’s help. Speak to Him daily about your struggles, preferably out loud and in your native language. This practice, called Hitbodedut, was popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

A bedrock of prayer is knowing that God cares about us and wants to help us. If a person feels forgotten by God, they will not be motivated to pray to Him. We learn from the Exodus and other times God has helped us that God never forgets about us; we are constantly on His mind. The question is, is He on our minds? Pray with intention and keep God on your mind.

2. Demonstrate your loyalty to your Creator. Just as the Jews in Egypt slaughtered the god of the Egyptians, we also need to show our devotion to our Creator by slaughtering the gods of western society. Examples of modern day gods: The pursuit of money at all costs, the unbridled pursuit of physical pleasure and the pursuit of escapist activities which waste one’s time and often pollute one’s mind.

Ways to slaughter the gods of western society and show your loyalty to your Creator:

Be ethical, honest and keep your word. When dealing with others, go above and beyond the letter of the law and be willing to compromise for the sake of peace.

Live a moral life, dress modestly, install an internet filter, and avoid forbidden seclusion (yichud) and touch (negiah).

Spend time each day studying Torah, even if only for a few minutes, look for ways to be of service to others and use your time wisely.

Passover is the time of freedom, when God freed us from slavery in order for us to follow His Torah. While a person may be technically free, if they are a slave to materialism, to their passions or to escapist activities, they remain shackled. But when we show our loyalty to God, by following His instructions for living, then we are truly free.

God has done and continues to do an incredible amount for us. He redeemed us from slavery, gave us the Torah, His wisdom for living, and performed countless miracles on our behalf, saving us from our enemies and giving us the Land of Israel. This is all in addition to the personal blessings He has given each one of us.

We all have to ask ourselves, “What have I done for God? How can I show my appreciation and loyalty to Him?”

3. Don’t give up. When the Jews were leaving Egypt, they almost lost hope when they saw the Egyptian army chasing after them. Moses prayed to God and God told him to keep going (Exodus, 14:15). By having faith in God and moving forward, even going straight toward the sea, they witnessed the amazing miracle of the sea splitting before them.

In our own lives, we may feel overwhelmed by struggles and past mistakes. At times, there appears to be no way out. But we must have faith that there is always a way out. Instead of wallowing in our difficulties, we must keep moving forward, step by step, even if we have no idea how we will succeed. Success is up to God; it is up to us to do our best.

Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity to overcome your challenges. Never give up. No situation is as seemingly hopeless as a nation enslaved for hundreds of years. Just as God freed us from slavery, so too can He free you from your difficulties. With faith in your heart, a prayer on your lips and ironclad determination, like the Jews leaving Egypt, may you too witness miracles and see your challenges split before you.

Think of a difficulty in your life and have faith that God has given you the strength to overcome it. Pick one step you will take to address the issue or ask someone wise for advice.

4. Help God’s other children. The Egyptians appointed Jewish officers over the Jewish slaves. When the slaves were not able to fulfill their quota of bricks, now that they had to collect their own straw, the Jewish officers could have punished the slaves. Instead, they took the beating themselves. They turned the difficulty of others into their difficulty.

In our lives, when we see others struggling, we also must not turn a blind eye. The Torah cautions (Leviticus 19:16), “…Do not stand aside while the blood of your fellow is shed…” We have to help others; we have to make their challenge our challenge.

As we come closer to the final redemption, God has increased the opportunities for us to help each other. We face so many crises: Spiritual ones of people feeling disconnected from Judaism or assimilating altogether, physical ones of mental and physical illness, staggering tuition bills and other high costs of living, and relationship ones, with rising divorce rates and singles having difficulty finding a spouse. We must turn these challenges into opportunities to help others, even as we struggle with own issues.

When you hear about someone who is struggling, take a moment to think about if there is anything you can do for them. At the very least, ask God to help them in their time of need. If you are on the lookout, each day God gives you opportunities to be of service to others.

5. Get and stay inspired. The Jews in Egypt had Moses, our greatest leader, to inspire and teach them. Who inspires you? Who teaches you how to come closer to God?

Our Father in Heaven says to us (Proverbs 23:26), “My child, give your heart to Me, and your eyes will desire My ways.” Observance with heart is how Judaism is meant to be lived. By finding inspiration – awakening our hearts – we will desire God’s Torah and mitzvot.

Ask those you respect, which teachers, books and websites provide them with inspiration. Beseech God to lead you to the ones best suited for you. Do not give up. Keep trying and searching, until you find the spiritual lifeline you need to survive as a committed Jew.

Choose one of these five strategies to start with, and strengthen your bond with God. Encourage your family and friends to join you as well.

Just as God did for our ancestors in Egypt, may He use our fortified bond with Him to lift us up from the pit of exile and into His embrace. May it be today.

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