וְכַאֲשֶׁר֙ יְעַנּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כֵּ֥ן יִרְבֶּ֖ה וְכֵ֣ן יִפְרֹ֑ץ וַיָּקֻ֕צוּ מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃
The more they oppressed them, the more they increased and spread out, and they came to dread the Children of Israel. So, Egypt enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing servitude… -Shemot (Exodus) 1:13 Parshat Shemot
One Passover, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev led the seder so perfectly, that every word and every ritual glowed with all the holiness of its mystical significance. In the dawn, after the celebration, Levi Yitzhak sat in his room, joyful and proud that he had performed such an perfect seder. But all of a sudden, a Voice from above spoke to him: “More pleasing to Me than your seder is that of Hayim the water-carrier.”
“Hayim the water-carrier?” wondered Levi Yitzhak, “Who’s that?” He summoned all of his disciples together, and asked if anyone had heard of Hayim the water-carrier. Nobody had. So, at the tzaddik’s bidding, some of the disciples set off in search of him. They asked around for many hours before they were led to a poor neighborhood outside the city. There, they were shown a little house that was falling apart. They knocked on the door. A woman came out and asked what they wanted. When they told her, she was amazed. “Yes,” she said, “Hayim the water carrier is my husband, but he can’t go with you, because he drank a lot yesterday and he’s sleeping it off now. If you wake him, you’ll see he won’t even be able to move.”
“It’s the rabbi’s orders!” answered the disciples. They barged in and shook him from his sleep. He only blinked at them and couldn’t understand what they wanted. Then he rolled over and tried to go on sleeping. So they grabbed him, dragged him from his bed, and carried him on their shoulders to the tzaddik’s house. There they sat him down, bewildered, before Levi Yitzhak. The rabbi leaned toward him and said, “Reb Hayim, dear heart, what kavanah, what intention was in your mind when you gathered the hameitz – the leavened foods – to burn in preparation for the seder?” The water carrier looked at him dully, shook his head and replied, “Master, I just looked into every corner and gathered it together.”
The astonished tzaddik continued questioning him: “And what yihudim – what holy intentions of unification did you contemplate when you burned it?” The man pondered, looked distressed, and said hesitatingly, “Master, I forgot to burn it, and now I remember – it’s all still lying on the shelf.” When Rabbi Levi Yitzhak heard this, he grew more and more uncertain, but he continued asking: “And tell me Reb Hayim, what intention did you have when you celebrated the seder?”
Then something seemed to quicken in his eyes and limbs, and he replied enthusiastically. “Rabbi, I shall tell you the truth. You see, I had always heard that it’s forbidden to drink brandy on all eight days of the festival, and so yesterday morning I drank enough to last me eight days. Then I got tired and fell asleep. When my wife woke me in the evening, she said, ‘Why don’t you celebrate the seder like all the other Jews?’ I said, ‘What do you want from me? I’m an ignorant man and my father was an ignorant man. I don’t know how to read, and I don’t know what to do, or what not to do.’ My wife answered, ‘You must know some little song or something!’ I thought for a moment, and then a melody came to me that I had heard as a child. I began to sing:‘Mah nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot – Why is this night different from all other nights?’ As I sang I began to think, ‘why is this night different?’
“Then, something strange happened. It was as if I awoke from a dream, and everything was suddenly more real, more alive. It was as if the night itself woke up all around me. I began to feel as if I were flying high above my life, and all of my troubles, all of my problems, were just ripples in an ocean far below me; but at the same time, I felt more connected to everything, to my wife and to our humble lives together – and then I realized – everything is part of Hashem! Everything is One! Then I got tired and fell asleep.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak smiled and understood.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃ – Egypt enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing servitude… Within this verse are three hints about the nature of spiritual bondage. The first hint is in the word פָֽרֶךְ farekh – “crushing labor.” The root פרך means “to break apart” or “fracture.” The hint here is that spiritual bondage is unpleasant – it involves suffering. But on a deeper level, it hints that there is some kind of breaking or fracturing happening, and that is the fracturing of Reality Itself as it appears in your consciousness. Consider – in this moment, our consciousness is meeting whatever is appearing right now – our sensations, our feelings, our perception of what is around us, whatever thoughts are arising, and so on. As long as consciousness simply meets whatever is present, there is a Wholeness to Everything. But when something unpleasant arises, whether external or internal – it doesn’t matter, because all experience arises within the one space of consciousness – there is a tendency for consciousness to contract into resistance. That is the פָֽרֶךְ farekh – the tearing apart of Reality, because now there is me “over here,” resisting that “over there” (even if the “over there” is in my own mind). This move from Wholeness to an opposing position implies a kind of contraction, because now rather than simply being the space of awareness within which experience happens, we become finite entities, resisting something within our experience.
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם – Egypt enslaved… This brings us to the second hint in this verse, the word מִצְרַ֛יִם Mitzrayim – “Egypt,” – from the root tzar which means “narrow,” probably because Egypt was built along the Nile. But metaphorically, it hints that to be in Mitzrayim is to be in a narrow state; the native and full spaciousness of our consciousness gets contracted into a fixed point of view – the narrow “me” called “ego.” And what is the basic activity of ego? Ego tries to control things, because it feels incomplete. That’s the basic hallmark of ego – that feeling of incompleteness, and with it, the need to change things in order to be “okay.” That feeling comes from the contraction into a mitzrayim state that happens spontaneously in reaction to farekh – suffering that breaks apart the Wholeness of our experience…
וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם – Egypt enslaved… And this brings us to the third hint in the verse, יַּעֲבִ֧דוּ ya’avidu – “enslaved.” The arising of suffering, represented by farekh, which causes the contraction into ego, represented by Mitzrayim, is obviously not something we consciously choose; it seems to just “happen” – that contraction seems to “grab” and “enslave” us against our will. And yet, on a deeper level, יַּעֲבִ֧דוּ ya’avidu is related to the word עֲבוֹדָה avodah, which means “work” or “service” not in the negative sense of slavery, but in the positive sense of prayer, or spiritual practice – which is an act of Presence and devotion. The hint here is that the experience of suffering, and the spiritual bondage that comes from it, has a purpose – and that is to be transformed into עֲבוֹדָה avodah, into a path of liberation. Because it is only from getting caught in spiritual bondage, and then finding our way out of bondage, that we can really mature and evolve. A baby in the womb is already whole and one with all being, but it is not liberated, because there is no appreciation of the Wholeness. In order to know liberation, we have to first taste bondage. The danger, of course, is that the experience of bondage, however that manifests, seduces us into a negative attitude and we become resigned to our stuck-ness; that is why we need to remember:
לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֶת־י֤וֹם צֵֽאתְךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ – So that you remember your going out from Egypt all the days of your life… Deut. 16:3 This verse, which also appears near the beginning of the seder, urges us to constantly remember that our basic nature is freedom, reminding ourselves every day, and even every night as the words of the seder say:
יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת – “The days of your life” means the daytime; “all the days of your life” means the nights also. And what is the daytime and nighttime practice for remembering our essential nature?
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ יי אֶחָד – Listen, Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One…
יי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ – The Divine is our God… Meaning: Being, or Existence, is not separate from Eloheinu – from our own inner Divinity – that is, from our awareness. In fact, our awareness is not really “ours” at all, but it is rather God’s awareness, waking up as us, within our body/mind…
יי אֶחָד – Existence, or Reality, is One.
Again and again we may get pulled into farekh – that involuntary suffering in which we contract into the egoic mitzrayim state, but if we sing out to the Ekhad – to the Oneness of Being – we can find our way beyond our problems and troubles (which exist primarily in our thoughts and feelings) and into the transcendent spaciousness of the present moment. And here, within the transcendence of this moment, may we recognize the true answer to the question – “Mah nishtana halaila hazeh – Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Because THIS “night,” really, this moment, is the only real moment! And this is the true Exodus – going out from the mitzrayim, the “virtual reality” of our minds – into actual Reality, the freedom and spaciousness of the present…
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