Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 8 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 and how to respond.

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 Paschal 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 their 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 our ancestors in Egypt. Here are eight 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 and redeem us.

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? Don’t let a day go by without thinking about God and praying to Him with intention.

Ask yourself, “How can I deepen my connection to God through prayer? Will I start reciting Psalms daily with intention and/or speaking to God in my native language, even if only for 5 minutes a day?”

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 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. If you were not upright in past dealings with others, ask a rabbi how to make things right.

Upgrade your morality. Each person knows what change they need to make, whether in their behavior, dress, or in what they watch.

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.

God has done and continues to do an incredible amount for us. He redeemed us from slavery, gave us the Torah 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.

Ask yourself, “What do I do 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 into 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. Ask yourself, “What is one thing I can do to address this challenge? Who is someone I can ask for advice?”

4. Help others. 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 our 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 look, you will see the countless opportunities God gives us to help others, whether through financial or physical assistance, or emotional support, encouragement or advice.

Ask yourself, “What is a gift that God has given me (resources, talents, connections) and how can I use it to help others?”

5. Live your faith with pride. Passover is the holiday of faith. Through the plagues God brought upon Egypt, He taught us to believe in Him. He then asked us to act on that faith by slaughtering the Egyptian god, the lamb, right in front of their eyes. We firmly believed that God would protect us from the wrath of the Egyptians, and He did. God then asked us to follow Him into a barren desert, having faith that He would take care of us. And He did. You are alive today, reading this, because God has continued to take care of His people. The inexplicable survival of the Jewish people throughout centuries of persecution is proof enough of God’s existence.

We learn from the Exodus that belief alone is not enough. We need to act on that faith. If a person claims to have faith in God but is dishonest or mistreats others, clearly, his faith is weak. He does not really believe that God can provide for him in an honest manner and that God will hold him accountable for misdeeds. How strong is your faith? Where are the incongruencies in your life, behaviors that are not aligned with your faith and values? These incongruencies or outliers to otherwise upstanding behavior are the chametz, the leaven, that you want to remove. In preparation for the holiday, you searched for and removed the chametz from your home. Mirror that process by searching for and removing the spiritual chametz from your life as well. 

There will be challenges to living your faith as a Jew, difficult passages in life. We need to be ready to follow God wherever He leads us. Yet, like our ancestors, when we follow God even into a barren desert, we know that eventually we will reach the Promised Land (and receive our reward, either in this world or in the world to come).

Be proud of your faith. The Sages teach that the Jews were redeemed in the merit of maintaining their Jewish identity. Even though they were negatively influenced by Egyption society, they kept their Jewish names, language and clothing. Even as slaves in Egypt, they still remained proud Jews. When you are firm in your Jewish identity and observance, others will respect you for it. People who are weak in upholding their ethics or values, others look down on them with disdain. Live your faith and live it with pride.

Ask yourself, “How can I live more true to my faith? How can I strengthen my adherence to my ethics and values?”

6. Become truly free. 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, addictions or to escapist activities, they remain shackled. But when we follow the Torah, God’s instructions for living, we are truly free, as it says in Ethics of the Fathers (6:2), “For there is no freer person than one who engages in Torah study.”

Ask yourself, “In what way am I still enslaved, to materialism, addictions or time wasting behavior, and how will I break free? Who can I ask for help?”

7. Know why you’re here. We all search for meaning and purpose in our life. Many mistakenly think that life is about making money and so they chase that. Or they think life is about physical pleasure and so they chase that. But in the end, money and physical pleasure are not enduring sources of meaning and leave people feeling empty. Our ancestors knew that God didn’t redeem them from Egypt just so that they could run wild. He redeemed them for a purpose. That purpose is clearly spelled out in Exodus (6:7), “I will take you as a people for Myself, and I will be a God to you…” God was not freeing our ancestors so that they could exchange being enslaved by Egypt with being enslaved by materialism. The reason He took us out of Egypt and the reason He created us is to have a relationship with us, to become His people, and for Him to become our God. How do you have a relationship with God? By talking to Him in prayer, by helping His children through acts of kindness, by studying His Torah and following His Torah as best you can.

Ask yourself, “How can I focus more on my purpose, the reason God created me and redeemed my ancestors from Egypt? How can I deepen my relationship with God?

8. 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.

Our Judaism cannot stay stagnant. One is either walking ever closer to God, or walking away. Those who stay connected to their Judaism are those who forge relationships with spiritual mentors and like minded friends, and who deepen their prayer and study of inspirational Torah teachings.

Ask those you respect, which teachers and books 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 Torah teachings that inspire you. 

Ask yourself, “Who can I ask what inspires them? Which Torah book can I learn or audio class can I listen to for inspiration?”

Choose one of these eight 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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