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It’s late at night and you’re standing in front of the mirror unsatisfied with what you see. You don’t have the job you want. You don’t have the body you want. You make a vow that going forward things are going to be different and the time to start is now. You set your alarm for early the next morning, telling yourself that tomorrow you will hit the gym, update your resume, and begin job hunting. Your head hits the fluffy pillow confident that when the alarm rings, you will spring out of bed excited to start your journey of self-transformation. Six hours later, the all-too-familiar buzzing sound of your alarm goes off, and all you want to do is stay in bed. “I’m so tired. Just let me stay in bed for another hour and I’ll hit the gym after work instead.” This profusely human tale reveals a powerful lesson about the holiday of Passover.
In Parshat Vaera when Hashem spoke to Moshe at the burning bush, He informed him: “I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” (Exodus 6:6) Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur, known for his work Chiddushei Harim, comments that the word for suffering - “Sivlot” also means “tolerance.” The Jewish people had become so used to slavery they had come to tolerate it. This is seen earlier when the Torah describes how the Jewish people criticized Moshe and Aharon for agitating Pharaoh for calling for their freedom. (Exodus 5:21). The physical slavery imposed by Pharoah was harsh, but the Jews were basically saying: “the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know”. Who knows how much worse things can get if we make a change. We might as well remain enslaved and not risk the unknown which could lead to greater difficulty in the immediate term. Besides, they perhaps figured, it’s not so bad here anyway.
Today’s version of slavery may be different, but the impact is the same. With our technological advancement, we currently live in the most physically comfortable time in human history. However, we also live with a kind of mental slavery imposed by none other than ourselves. Too often we succumb to the desire for instant gratification - ignoring our real needs and aspirations - which we know can only be realized through hard work and dedication. Instead, we numb ourselves with creature comforts and conveniences which distract us from our true purpose.
This phenomenon can be seen when we examine the difference between bread or chametz and its opposite - matzah. If dough is left in the oven for more than 18 minutes, the hot air causes the dough to rise and it becomes fluffy, ie- chametz. Removing the dough before that threshold however makes the dough into thin and tough matzah. It is only when we fill ourselves with hot air, the excuses we make that turn us into fluffy, fragile people - like a piece of bread or a comfortable pillow - which prevent us from becoming resilient people necessary to reach our life goals.
Getting what we truly desire in this world isn’t easy. Sometimes we wish we could just hang out with friends instead of having to spend the time studying for that test. Eating a salad doesn’t give us the immediate taste bud sensation that a pizza does. And straining our muscles at the gym doesn’t compare to the instant gratification of sitting on the couch and watching a movie. Why couldn’t God have made it easier for us to achieve the outcomes we so desire? Why do we have to work so hard?
The Kabbalists use the term “Bread of Shame” to express the idea that goodness and pleasure without having earned it is a profoundly unsatisfactory experience. This is a fundamental tenet of human nature. The greatest pleasures always involve struggle and inconvenience in the immediate term. There is a certain shame in receiving the job or body we want without having earned it. True freedom lies in making the conscious choice to go after what we want despite the knowledge that it will only come with struggle. The pleasure we receive after acquiring it is far greater than a slice of pizza or that extra hour of sleep.
This Passover, let’s make sure to not let the slavery of the moment hinder us from the freedom we can achieve when we pursue the life goals we truly desire. Striving for those goals will, no doubt, require effort and hard work, but the sense of accomplishment and purpose it gives it makes it all worth it in the end.
Special thank you to Andrew Hershkowitz for his contribution to this piece of Torah.