Exodus from Egypt: Be your own TAS(K) master
Emotions & Psychology / Essays 2019
Exodus from Egypt? That’s like so 3,300 years ago.
Yet, we see that Judaism is laden with references to the Exodus. In fact, we are commanded to recall it every single day of our lives- ‘lema’an tizkor at yom tze’etcha me’eretz Mitzrayim kol yemei chayecha’ (Devarim 16:3).
As of 2017, the Jewish population of Egypt is 18 (6 in Cairo, and 12 in Alexandria). They can all single handedly hop on a jet and leave Egypt– but what about the rest of us who live everywhere else?
So long as we consider Egypt to be a geographic location, we will never be able to leave it.
We are charged with the axiom ‘bechol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo keilu hu yatza miMitzrayim’ (Talmud Pesachim 116b) -, ‘in every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt’. The Alter Rebbe, in perek 47 of Tanya emends this verse, that ‘bechol yom vayom chayav’, a person is obligated every single day to lead his personal exodus from Egypt. Thus, the exodus from Egypt has both contemporary relevance and also personal relevance to each and every individual. By following the paradigm of the original collective Exodus, we can each gain our own personal one.
We will employ the Hayom Yom of Daled Shevat, various chapters in the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Maamar (Chassidic discourse) titled ‘Vayishlach Yehoshua’ 5736, as well as various adages in Torah, specifically Chabad chassidus, to demonstrate how Egypt is actually a constricted psychological state, and the process of exodus is one based on the internal processes of a person which one can achieve by staying ‘on TASK’– that is, regulating their Thought (machshavah), Action (maaseh), Speech (dibbur), and Knowledge (daat).
According to chassidus (see Likutei Sichos Vol. VII, page 270-273), Egypt (‘Mitzrayim’, as it’s called in the Holy Language) represents a state of constriction, considering the etymological root of its name in Hebrew, meitzar– a narrow passage. In the collective, national Exodus recounted in the Torah, the Jews left ‘Mitzrayim’ in anticipation of arrival at a ‘wide, expansive land’, the Land of Canaan/the Land of Israel. While Mitzrayim represents a state of constriction, the land of Canaan/Israel represents an expanded consciousness. It is this very voyage we are commanded to each take- going from a state of internal constriction to one of wide expansion. The Hayom Yom of Daled Shevat further develops this concept, and instructs us on how to actually accomplish this.
Let’s take a look.
Hayom Yom 4 Shevat:
“Mitzrayim (Egypt) expresses constriction, limitation. The spiritual Egyptian exile is the animal soul’s restricting and concealing the G‑dly soul so severely that the G‑dly soul is compressed to the degree that it is diminished and obscured. “Exodus from Egypt” is the removal of the constriction and bounds; i.e. the intellect in the brain illuminates the heart, bringing about fine character traits translated into actual practice.”
The Alter Rebbe teaches us in Tanya (chapter 1-2) that each person has an animal soul and a G-dly soul. The animal soul is narrowly limited to considerations regarding one’s own self and personal desires, while the G-dly soul is broad, far more comprehensive, and unlimited. When in ‘Egypt’, or a state of constriction, the G-dly soul, the source of expansion, is shackled and bound. In fact, when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, the pasuk (verse) tells us that they were not able to hear the news of the impending redemption due to a state of ‘kotzer ruach’- a restrained spirit- caused by their emotional distress. Here, the redeeming voice of the G-dly soul heralding redemption is subdued by the spiritual systole they are experiencing from slavery.
In more relevant terms, when one is enslaved to anxiety, depression, worry, stress, or any emotional imbalance, they are not able to hear the redemptive voice of their G-dly soul, but rather remain captive/bound and entrenched in the depths of servitude taking beating after beating of their heart’s emotions. To release oneself from the captivity of constriction, to arrive at a state of peace, tranquility, of ‘refinedness’- of psychological expansion– a person must somehow influence their heart (emotions) by the power of their mind (intellect), as the Hayom Yom indicates.
Try telling your emotions to ‘calm down’ when you’re worked up. They don’t listen. Actually, they act up even more! (this gives a whole new meaning to a ‘beating heart’, eh?). The emotions are too erratic and impetuous to heed the voice of the stable and rational mind, (which like in Egpyt, went unheard and remained ‘obscured’). So unless you’re fluent in speaking ‘heart’, we’re going to need another approach.
In the maamar VaYishlach Yehoshua (‘and Yehoshua sent [spies]’)- we learn of the two different conquests of the Land of Israel (the ‘wide expansive land’ we want to get to, remember?)- one by Moshe Rabbeinu, and one by his successor, Yehoshua. These two parallel conquests serve as two models for emotional regulation. The first, by Moshe Rabbeinu, considered a complete Tzaddik- a person of achieved spiritual perfection, is the approach of dealing with the emotions directly. Now, just like there aren’t too many Moshe Rabbeinu’s around, not too many of us are designed to be able to do that. Instead, we can turn to Yehoshua to learn an alternate method of how each and every one of us can regulate our emotions without having to directly engage with them.
Moshe Rabbeinu sent spies to conquer the Seven Nations that were then occupying the land. Meanwhile, Yehoshua was specifically commanded to firstly conquer the city of Yericho for the time being, and only then would he be able to combat the Seven Nations. The Seven Nations are representative of the seven core emotions that we consist of . Yericho on the other hand represents something called the soul’s ‘garments’, by which the soul expresses itself, much like clothing can express the person who is wearing them. (Likutei Torah, Shelach 51d).
The garments of the soul are a person’s thought, speech, and action (Tanya chapter 4) and every single person is granted direct influence over them. These ‘garments’ are far more accessible to us all than those tricky, sticky, deep rooted emotions which seem to evade us (it’s much easier to change your clothing than it is to have a brain or heart transplant isn’t it?). So once a person can regulate their thought, speech, and action (‘conquering Yericho’), they can then subsequently arrive at influencing their emotions (‘conquering the Seven Nations’).
This is where it’s important to stay on TAS(K). In Egypt, slaves were beaten by taskmasters, but a person can circumvent any emotional distress by becoming their own TAS(K) master, that is, by mastering their:
Once this can be done, it will in turn influence one’s emotions by default.
Let’s see how this works.
Many people are surprised to know that they actually can control their thoughts. It’s true, thoughts are constantly going. Yet while we can’t actually stop thinking, we can change the course of our thoughts, we can change their content (Maamar Vayishlach Yehoshua). Remember, thought is considered to be a garment after all, which means that you can change it the same way that you can put on a new shirt.
Think about your thoughts. At the moment, are you coming from a place of ‘broad’ mindedness (‘wide, expansive land’) or ‘narrow’ mindedness (‘Mitzrayim’)? Are you able to hear the lucid voice of your G-dly soul, or is it disrupted by the clamor of the animal soul? Consider the source of your thoughts. Ask yourself, is this thought leading toward a positive or negative thought path? If positive, then continue on! If you are realizing that perhaps your thoughts are negative, instead of trying to stop the thought or ‘emptying the mind’, shift your thought to something more positive.
It helps to have a positive ‘backup thought’ prepared in advance and ready for you to use automatically anytime you feel this happening. It can be an idea, a verse, a teaching, or even a niggun (chassidic melody). The good part is, you can only really think about one thing at a time, so as long as you can have a positive thought, there is no room for a negative thought (and thus, a negative emotion) to come in! (Hayom Yom of 16 Cheshvan)
The Rebbe would often assert that ‘ha’maaseh hu ha’ikar’, that action is the main thing. While emotions can often influence how we act, it can work the other way around, too. Our external actions can in turn influence our internal emotions. The Sefer Hachinuch says that ‘Acharei hamaasim nimshachim halevavot’, after the actions, the emotions follow.
Think about how you feel when you put on that spanking new suit or dress. Can a new piece of clothing actually make me feel good? Absolutely. If a mere physical garment can do that, then upgrading to a fresh new action can certainly do the same, if not more.
Give your emotions a break, and do something- positive, of course. Whether it’s going for a walk, cooking, arts, or even menial tasks – divert your emotions and channel your energy into doing an action, whatever it may be.
Want to take it to the next level? Break past your personal boundaries and limitations (your personal ‘Mitzrayim’), go out of yourself, and do a selfless deed for someone other than yourself. Give coins to charity, ask your neighbor if they’d like your help around the house, start an online fundraiser for that cause you always believed in, pay a visit to someone who may be lonely with some fresh juice and cookies, volunteer your time at a local organization, or maybe tutor a student in a subject you’re good at. Repeated positive action will condition the emotions and refine one’s personal character.
The middle ground between thought and action, speech is a mighty powerful faculty. So central is it to our makeup, that humans are identified as ‘medaber’ (speaking beings) in the biblical taxonomy of created beings. According to Kabbalah and Chassidus (Sefer Yetzirah), HaShem created the world with words, by speaking each creation into existence. The building blocks of creation are actually letters. We too, have the ability to create with our speech. With our words, we give life and existence to reality. (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 27, page 163)
There is a vast difference between saying ‘don’t tense up’ and ‘gently relax’, although they may both be trying to express the same idea. It’s the difference between wearing crinkled shirt or freshly ironed one, even though it is the same exact shirt. However you frame your reality with speech is how you will think of it and feel about it.
Consider if your speech needs some laundering (or maybe even some heavy bleaching). What words do you use to express yourself? What tone do you use when speaking? This can be vocal speech or even the personal dialogue that goes on in your mind.
Catch yourself when you say ‘I can’t’, and consider saying ‘I am able to’, or instead of ‘I have to be doing so-and-so’, say ‘I have the opportunity or privilege to be doing so-and-so’.
Both Tefillah (prayer) and Tehillim (psalms) are potent sources of speech to engage in that can help create a positive reality.
The Talmud teaches us, ‘daagah belev ish yasichenah’, if there is a worry in a person’s heart, to talk it out. Talking with a friend, mentor, or someone you feel comfortable with can help allay undesired emotions and bring a person clarity and balance.
Known as ‘daat’ in Chassidus, ‘knowledge’ is different than ‘thought’. Daat is the ability to internalize a piece of intellect to the point where it will influence the emotions. In Kabbalah and Chassidus, daat is represented by the neck, which is the bridge between the head and the heart. The degree to which one’s daat is expanded, the better the communication between the mind and heart, and the better we can influence the emotions. This is called ‘harchavat hadaat’, expansion of the daat. Should this passageway be constricted, the heart won’t hear what the mind has to say. Sounds familiar?
So while we can’t directly tell the emotions what to do, we can focus on expanding the channel of our daat so that the messages from our intellect, from the G-dly soul, and from our positive thought speech and action can be better relayed to the emotions. We say every day in the Aleinu prayer, ‘veyadaata hayom vehashvota el levavecha’, you shall have daat today and bring it to your heart… Having daat is another way we can access emotions.
To clear out the passageway and expand one’s daat, it is important to develop an awareness of the unity of HaShem among all of creation. It’s not exactly a ‘quick fix’, and time must be designated to learn and to deeply contemplate how ‘Ein Od Milvado’, there is none other than HaShem and that He is intimately involved with every single aspect of our lives.
A good time to do this would be when saying the Shema, in the morning and in the evening- when starting one’s day and when wrapping it up. This way, we can live our lives consciously aware and in the most positive way.
In general, examine and change your garments as needed. Some will need more conditioning, and others will need some patching up. Different seasons will also call for a different wardrobe. Either way, garments – our thoughts, speech, and action – are versatile and can always be changed- and thus we are never ever stuck in an emotion. Pack your suitcase with your best garments, because we’re leaving Egypt today!