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Freedom is an Inside Job

03/27/2019 03:31:11 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

With Passover around the corner, my mind naturally turns towards its many themes. This year I am especially interested in how we can relate Passover to our inner lives.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt that we retell at Pesach is rich with metaphor. Many years ago, my colleague and close friend Rabbi Margaret Holub in Mendocino wrote about how her own personal Egypt, her “twice narrow place” (a word-play on the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayyim) was seasonal depression, and Exodus, the splitting of her personal “sea,” was Prozac. This revelation was a big deal at the time, an act of great vulnerability that opened the door for many other folks in the Jewish community, both lay and rabbinic, to talk about their own struggles with mental illness. It’s also an excellent example of how the themes of Pesach can apply to us a deeply personal level.


Hassidism, the most psychologically sophisticated of the Jewish movements, offers a helpful framework for working internally with the Exodus narrative. According to Hassidic thought, we often see the world in one of two ways; mochin d’katnut, in a small-minded way, and mochin d’gadlut, with a more expansive perspective. In the Talmud there is a story that illustrates how this can work:

At the moment the Red Sea parted, all of Israel was captivated by the awe of the moment—except for two Israelites, Shimon and Levi, who were upset about the mud on their shoes and missed the miracle altogether. One can imagine their conversation.: “Oy! This mud is horrible! Look what it is doing to my new sandals! We would be better off in Egypt than to have to slog through this muck!”

This story might seem silly until you realize how often we allow ourselves to be distracted by petty concerns—shiny objects that grab attention, rendering us oblivious to the miracles all around us. Cell phone screens come to mind; how much do we miss with our heads bowed as we stare at the little screen? How much life, beauty, and personal connection with others do we forego because of that form of mochin d’katnut?

On a more personal level, it seems to me that many of the interpersonal issues we struggle with are a result of a small-minded view of others. When we judge others, essentially objectifying the other person, we stop seeing them as a human being and place them in the small-minded box of “the other” or, worse, the enemy. When that happens, the conflict becomes a zero-sum game where there is a “winner” and a “loser” and everyone suffers.

I often see this form of mochin d’katnut in my work at Shomrei Torah. A member of our community will come see me about some family tzuris. They’re not talking to their children, lost touch with a sibling, upset with a co-worker. At first it is hard for them to recall just what happened but eventually the story falls out like a broken part off the undercarriage of a car.  Words were said, or not said, something was remembered, or forgotten. Whatever happened, inadvertently or on purpose, feelings were hurt and one or both parties moved into a small-minded perspective where they could only think the worst of the other person. The sad part is not that this happens; rather, it’s that we get stuck there. It becomes our Egypt and we become slaves to this narrow and distorted view of the other person.

On the other hand, if we can move out of that box of small-mindedness to mochin d’gadlut, a larger, more generous place, we begin to see the other not as an object of our anger but as another human being like us, just trying to make our way in the world. When that happens, our hearts soften, and we naturally become more compassionate and understanding. Understanding and empathy replace judgment and recrimination and, before we know it, we are back in relationship again.

Given how hard it is to resolve some of the conflicts we find ourselves in, it would be foolish to suggest that the movement from mochin d’katnut to mochin d’gadlut is easy. It is always hard to free ourselves from slavery, whether that bondage is physical, emotional, or psychological. And yet, it is one of the only things over which we have true control. As the seas parted for the Israelites, may we all in some way move from mochin d’katnut to mochin d’gadlut this Pesach.Hag Sameach!

Thu, July 16 2020 24 Tammuz 5780