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How to free yourself


Rav Yehonason Gefen (Beshalach)

Often in life we struggle with challenges that tend to hold us back from day to day, month to month and year to year. How do we break free - truly free? Lets look deeper inside of human nature to get the answer to this question

The Torah portion Beshalach begins with a description of how the Jewish people finally left Egypt and the yoke of Pharaoh. As they faced the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds) they suddenly saw that the Egyptian army was chasing after them. After cyring out to God and then complaining to Moses, they walked into the sea and the miracle of Krias Yam Suf (the Splitting of the Sea) took place. After crossing the sea, they witnessed the final destruction of the Egyptian army. At this point, the Torah tells us; “On that day God delivered Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw the people dead on the seashore”.[1] The Ibn Ezra notes the Torah’s emphasis that it was only on that day that the Jews were fully free of the yoke of the Egyptians. He explains that even after they left Egypt, they still felt a great sense of fear of Pharaoh and only became completely free of the Egyptian yoke once they saw the final destruction of the might of the Egyptians at the Yam Suf. Their feelings of subjugation (shibud) to the Egyptians were not allayed by merely ‘escaping’. It was only when they saw the Egyptians destroyed that they were were now able to be fully free of their self-image as ‘Pharaoh’s slaves’.[2]

The Hagaddah’s description of the nature of the subjugation to the Egyptians teaches us a similar lesson to that of the Ibn Ezra. The Hagaddah tell us: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; HaShem, our God took us out from there with a strong Hand. And if HaKadosh Baruch Hu did not take our fathers out of Egypt, we and our children, and our children’s children would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”[3] The obvious question on the Haggadah’s assertion is that it is very difficult indeed to imagine that had the Exodus not taken place, then we would all still be slaves to the Egyptians – indeed the Egyptian Empire disintegrated thousands of years ago! One answer given is that the Hagaddah does not mean that we would be physically enslaved (meshubad) to Egypt, however there would still remain an element of a psychological shibud to Pharaoh and his people. We would have become physically free, but we would never have escaped from, and overcome, the Egyptians. Rather, we would have become free by default, and consequently, we would never have fully broken the self-image of ourselves as people who are controlled by another nation and not free to fully express ourselves.

These explanations provide us with a very important foundation with regard to the challenge of how to deal with negative forces that hold power over us; this includes people who control us in an unhealthy manner, destructive addictions; and general weapons of the yetser hara such as lust (taiva). It seems from the example of the Exodus that there are two stages in freeing oneself from a negative influence. The first stage is to escape the source of negativity, in the same way that the Jewish people left Egypt. The second is to overcome or eliminate that source – this took place with the destruction of the Egyptian army in the sea. The Ibn Ezra teaches us that whilst escaping the source of shibud is often an essential stage, it is insufficient in fully freeing oneself. One can only become fully free by attaining the second stage. Accordingly, it was only when the Jewish people saw the Egyptians finally destroyed, that they were able to be fully free of the Egyptian enslavement.

There are two key lessons that can be learnt out from the above. Firstly, a person needs to recognize which stage of freedom he has attained. It is particularly important for him to be aware when he has not fully overcome the shibud to his negative influence rather that he has only escaped it. One strategy of people who give up addictions is to acknowledge that they have not fully overcome the addiction rather they have only removed themselves from it. For example, some people who have given up smoking for many years still describe themselves as ‘smokers’. In this way they remind themselves that they are still at risk of falling back into the trap of nicotine addiction and therefore they studiously avoid even one cigarette. If, however, they would convince themselves that they have no remnants of addiction then they would feel able to have one cigarette and not resume their addiction. However, often this is not the case, and one ‘harmless’ cigarette could easily thrust them back into the clutches of their dangerous addiction. The second, and more difficult lesson, is that one must strive to reach the second stage of fully overcoming their shibud to the degree that one is fully free.

It seems that these two stages are alluded to by the Rambam in his discussion of different levels of teshuva (repentance).[4] He writes that complete teshuva can only be attained when a person is thrust into the exact same situation that he previously failed in, and now he overcomes his yetser hara. A lower level of teshuva is when a person goes through the four stages that are required to repent, but he still may not be at the level where he would overcome his yetser hara were he to be forced into the same situation.[5] It seems that the lower level is the stage of escaping his yetser hara, whereas the second stage of fully overcoming it is the complete teshuva that the Rambam refers to.

We have seen from the example of the Exodus that there are two stages of freeing oneself from negative influences – escaping is the first level and overcoming it is the second. One may wonder how it is possible to fully overcome forces that exert such power over us. This is obviously no simple matter and each specific case needs to be analyzed in and of itself however, the story of the Splitting of the Sea does offer us two vital suggestions as to how one can hope to succeed. As the Ibn Ezra pointed out, the Jewish people did not destroy the Egyptians at all, rather HaShem did it for them. This teaches us that it is beyond human capacity to fully overcome such yetser haras, as the Gemara say when they assert, that, “man’s yetser [tries to] overpower and destroy him every day… and if not for God helping him, he would not be able to overcome it.”[6] Accordingly, it is essential to turn to Heavenly guidance to be able to defeat whatever force it is that holds us back. However, we also see from the Splitting of the Sea that it is insufficient to merely sit back and rely on God, for when Moshe prayed for help God told him to stop praying and to tell the people to step into the Sea. It was only when they made those bold first steps into the sea that it split.[7] We learn from here that, whilst it is impossible to overcome one’s yetser hara without God, nonetheless, a person must be willing to make the effort. When he shows that he is prepared to do that, then God does the rest. May we all merit to emulate the Jews at the Yam Suf and completely free ourselves of those forces that hold us back from fulfilling our potential.

[1] Shemos, 14:30.

[2] Ibn Ezra, 14:30.

[3] Hagaddah Shel Pesach.

[4] See Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva, Ch.2, Halacha 2.

[5] Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva, Ch.2, Halacha 1.

[6] Kiddushin, 30b.

[7] Shemos, 14:15.

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