As the rabbi of a large congregation, my father attended many weddings and bar-mitzvahs. My mother usually accompanied him and on rare occasions I got to go as well. I always assumed that when this happened, I was being rewarded for good behavior. It wasn’t until years later that my mother confided that the times when I was taken along were when the babysitter positively refused to have me at home.
While attending one particular bar-mitzvah with my parents when I was about ten years-old, I clearly remember spotting a woman surreptitiously sweeping some cookies off the table and into her rather capacious purse. I instantly realized that she was harboring a fugitive to whom she needed to get food. My fevered mind needed to know whether her fugitive was a criminal or a hero. Clearly the only way to find out more was to place her under my diligent surveillance for the rest of the afternoon. I observed her sneaking some fish and fruit into her bag. Sooner or later, I would surely catch her leaving the hall and by following her I would determine the identity of the person she was hiding.
What she thought of the slightly disheveled, stern-faced little boy staring fixedly at her all afternoon, I never discovered. However, when I informed my parents on our way home that possibly criminal activity was occurring beneath their very noses, I did discover something else.
It turned out that the harmless lady I had been stalking had emigrated twenty years earlier from depression era Germany. My parents explained that she frequently attended synagogue parties and her harmless habit was well known. Though she was now living comfortably, she was unable to end her need to save and secrete food. You can take the lady out of starving Germany but it’s harder to take starving Germany out of the lady.
Have you retained any obsolete behavior or emotional patterns from earlier days? Perhaps you retain some negative way of parenting stemming from your childhood or a lingering tendency to view money as moral contamination? If you have, ancient Jewish wisdom’s insights into Passover might be helpful to you.
Let us together peer into the heart of a well-known story. The Red Sea is about to split and drown the Egyptians. One interesting phrase occurs twice.
…and Egypt will know that I am the Lord (Exodus 14:4)
Egypt will know that I am the Lord…(Exodus 14:18)
There are two problems with this. One, Egypt will soon be drowned and won’t know anything. Second, later, in their song after crossing when the Israelites mention the nations that will “hear and be afraid,” the list of those who heard of Israel’s triumph does not include the Egyptians.
People heard and trembled; a shiver overcame the Philistines.
Then the chiefs of Edom were terrified as well as the mighty men of Moab,
trembling seized them; all the residents of Canaan melted.
So what did God mean by saying, “Egypt will know…”?
In order to discover the answer, we must remember that since leaving Egypt the Hebrews had been complaining to Moses. In their minds, they inverted the truth. Egypt, the place of death and suffering was now benign, while the desert, their highway to freedom, they viewed as malevolent.
It turned out to be easier to get the Hebrews out of Egypt than it was to get Egypt out of the Hebrews. It is always easier to end the physical reality of oppression than it is to remove the spirit of oppression from the hearts of the formerly oppressed. Imagine someone who has been ground down over a long period by unemployment and financial stress. You’d think that if he now won the lottery, his troubles would be over. Yet the truth is that even if provided with a financial windfall, his mindset is still that of fear and stress.
This is what King David meant when he wrote:
Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your wonders; they did not remember your many acts of kindness, and they were rebellious by the Red Sea.
Despite God sending ten plagues and devastating Egypt, clearly revealing His protection over the Israelites, they still imagined themselves vulnerable. When God twice said that His plan was for Egypt ‘to know that I am the Lord’ (Exodus 14:4,18) He was saying that he wanted that little bit of Egypt that still lingered in the Hebrew heart to know, finally, once and for all, that He is the Lord.
Removing that last part of Egypt requires the disturbing memory to be overwritten. Yes, Egypt was hideous but now its remnant is drowned beneath the waves. Yes, I may be a fully grown adult, yet I may still be carrying around harmful memories that hinder my effectiveness in my relationships with others, with money or even with God. We can’t surgically remove those memories but we can remind ourselves that they lie drowned.
Jews mention the Exodus from Egypt multiple times daily as well as devoting an entire week of Passover to that occurrence. Not only does it link us to God and our past, but by constantly reminding us that we can escape all manners of Egypt, it fortifies our present and allows us to create our future.
If this intrigues you, and you’d like a greater understanding of what Egypt means (a country in Africa is the least important description) and how to get out of whatever Egypt you are facing, do listen to our audio CD, Let Me Go: How to Overcome Life’s Challenges and Escape Your Own Egypt. This time of year is particularly propitious for salvation and rebirth.