This week's parsha
The Warming of Egypt
“G‑d wants the heart” -- Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b.
Three hundred years ago, the Baal Shem Tov used this Talmudic adage to trigger a revolutionary shift in the Jewish psyche. Although you may dedicate your skilled hands, and even your intellectual prowess, don’t neglect to give G‑d a piece of your heart.
When the Baal Shem Tov entered the scene in the early 18th century, much of European Jewry suffered from what we would today call post-traumatic stress. Centuries of persecution and violent anti-Semitism had climaxed in the Chmielnitzki massacres of 1648–9, which wiped out an estimated six hundred thousand Jews and left the Jewish social and economic infrastructure in shambles. Any remaining illusion of stability had been shattered as they watched the Cossacks rampage freely while their neighbors turned a blind eye.
And then came the collective emotional numbness. Although most Jewish folk clung to religious ritual, if you would’ve stripped away the layer of observance you’d have found a wounded heart with a weak pulse. Passion is only for the secure and thriving; survivors just try to make it through the day.
The Baal Shem Tov made it his life’s mission to reawaken that passion. He knew that the Jewish nation could not survive without enthusiasm, idealism and love of G‑d. If we lacked the spirit that enlivens the ritual observance and keeps us perpetually resilient, we’d eventually fade out and die as a people.
And so he devoted his life to rubbing warm numb Jewish hearts. He bent down to speak lovingly to children, and uplifted their parents with stories from the Talmud. He called for singing and dancing and enthusiastic prayer, and slowly hearts began to heal. Engaging in an authentic relationship with G‑d seemed safe and even enticing again.
The story is not a new one. It happened once before, in Egypt. Moses, too, found a nation that was deeply wounded, jaded and depleted. Leaving Egypt was not only a matter of emigration; it would be a far more challenging psychological transition from oppression to empowerment. You could take the Jew out of Egypt, but could you take Egypt out of the Jew? Moses’ job was to facilitate this redemption.
One therapeutic technique that he used at G‑d’s behest was orchestrating the ten plagues. With this ten-step process, he weakened the evil of Egyptian culture and began to heal the Jewish psyche.
The initial treatment entailed a tangible transformation of the Nile River’s water into blood. Simultaneously, an intangible transformation was triggered. While the cold Egyptian waters were turned into warm blood for seven days, the frigid apathy that the Egyptians displayed towards spirituality and human suffering was undergoing intensive heat therapy. At the root of Egyptian culture and brutality lay the Nile River, a river that was worshipped for its fertile mineral-filled water that would dance onto the shore and irrigate the soils. The river’s ebb and flow was the Egyptian NASDAQ: it called the economic shots, and built up its host to be a superpower. Everyone paid tribute to the Nile.
The Nile’s allure made the Egyptians cool -- way too hip and self-confident to care about some Jewish G‑d. “Who is this G‑d that I should listen to Him?” roared Pharaoh at Moses and Aaron. I’m too cool for your G‑d, and too apathetic to feel for the plight of my Jewish slaves.
G‑d instructed Moses to heal Egypt of its apathy by targeting the root of its dysfunction; the Nile River flowed with warm blood. This warmth spread also to the Jews, and worked to melt away the cold apathy that the Egyptian bondage bred.
The exodus from Egypt remains the classic model for inner transformation. Egypt, or Mitzrayim in Hebrew, shares the same root as the word meitzarim, meaning “constrictions.” Personal exodus means moving beyond the status quo, so that I’m no longer defined by my previous limitations. In its more developed stage, exodus is about moving beyond a self-centered orbit towards a closer relationship with G‑d.
The Exodus model outlines the first step in facilitating liberation and growth: turn your cold water into warm blood. Blood is life, pleasure and vitality. You can do all the right things, but if it’s without warmth, the rituals will wither, and performance will be but a skeleton without a soul.
I see the Exodus dynamic playing out vividly each day in school. As a teacher, I like to think of my role as facilitating emotional and spiritual growth through the study of Torah. But it would never work without lots of warmth and love. Information alone doesn’t inspire transformation in most teenagers I’ve met. They are way too cool for that. But if we can turn cold water into blood, turn apathy into warmth and enthusiasm, then the ground is fertile and the work can begin.