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Let’s Leave the Straits of Egypt Today

The painting is courtesy of the painter Baruch Nachshon – Nachshonart

In prayer we experience a daily Exodus from Egypt and burst out in a song of praise to God

The Exodus from Egypt happened thousands of years ago, but it is reenacted in every generation, every day and for each and every one of us. Let’s see how.

The memory of the Exodus accompanies us throughout our lives as Jews. The sages teach us that it is a mitzvah to recall the Exodus twice a day, morning and eve, as the verse states, “In order that you recall the day you left the Land of Egypt every day of your life.” In addition to mentioning the Exodus in general, we are also obliged to mention the Plague of the Firstborns, which took place at midnight on the fifteenth of Nisan and marked the preliminary stage of the Exodus, when “The King of Kings revealed Himself upon them to redeem them.” We must also mention the grand finale of the Exodus from the Egyptian exile, which happened just a week later; the Splitting of the Red Sea.

Healing Paranoia

Physically the Israelites had left Egypt, but inwardly they were still in exile. They looked back apprehensively, paranoically inhibited by the knowledge that the Egyptians were close at their heels, “The Children of Israel raised their eyes and saw, and behold, Egypt was approaching them from behind, and they feared greatly and the Children of Israel called out to God.” The Exodus reached its culmination only once the entire Jewish people had walked through the Red Sea and reached the other side. In Kabbalistic terminology, the Jewish people were not completely released from the impure husks until the entire Egyptian army lay dead at the seashore. Only then were they released from the fear that had held them in its clutches. At that moment, their redemption by God’s mighty hand became so clear to them that they began singing, “This is my God and I will extol Him.”

In Parashat Beshalach, we read about this ecstatic moment, when, after the Red Sea split, the Children of Israel sang the Song of the Sea to praise God for His miraculous kindnesses.

The final redemption will be a reenactment of the Exodus and the Splitting of the Red Sea. We might say that the Return to Zion in recent times is the beginning of the Exodus from foreign lands. Yet, although we have returned to our Holy Land, the Jewish People as a whole is still haunted by fear, and remains mentally enslaved to Western culture. The current Jewish leadership looks back at their foreign roots and asks cautiously “But, what will they say?” However, this approach is liable to attract the impurity of the exile to pursue us into the Land of Israel, God forbid.

Now as then, this irrational paranoia can be healed. Our dependence on foreign opinions will be cured. Then we will genuinely become free men, servants only to God who says, “This nation have I redeemed.”

The Soul’s Exodus from Egypt

The Exodus was not only a historical event. Our redemption from the dire straits of the Egyptian bondage had a profound effect on every individual Jewish soul. In his seminal work, the Tanya, Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains the innermost significance of the Exodus from Egypt in our personal service of God.

“In every generation and every day, every individual is obliged to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt that very day.” This refers to the release of the Divine soul from the confines of the body… to be absorbed into the Unity of the light of the blessed Infinite one … in particular through accepting the Kingdom of Heaven during the recital of the Shema, wherein the person explicitly accepts and draws over himself His blessed Unity, when he says: “Havayah is our God, Havayah is One… Therefore it was ordained that the paragraph concerning the Exodus from Egypt be read specifically during the recital of the Shema.”

The collective Jewish memory of the Exodus from Egypt accompanies us throughout life and it is a mitzvah to recall the day of the Exodus twice a day. This mitzvah is observed when we recite the third paragraph of the Shema every evening and morning, including the verse, “I am Havayah your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt…”

When reading Shema we proclaim out loud, “God is one,” but the world around us remains full of disorder. At this stage of the proceedings, we are afraid of the impurity of the evil inclination, which still pursues us, which is why we are warned in the third paragraph of the Shema, “Do not stray after it.” In the Shema we speak about God (in the third person), but we do not yet speak to God.

Yet, once we have completed the Shema and its blessings, we turn directly to God, as we make our opening request before the silent Amidah prayer, “God, open my lips and my mouth shall speak Your praise.” This is the moment when the “sea” that usually prevents our spiritual advance, splits before us and all of our enemies drown in its fathomless depths. The Amidah prayer corresponds to the song that the Jews sung immediately after the sea split in a miraculous revelation of the Divine. Indeed, the numerical value of “prayer” (תְּפִלָה) is 515, which is the same as “song” (שִׁירָה).

When one stands in prayer before God, “One should see oneself as if one is standing before the King and speaking to Him.” In prayer, we speak directly to God in first person, “Blessed are You, God.” Our main endeavor during prayer should be to dismiss foreign thoughts, and if we stand in prayer as we should, all foreign thoughts will indeed drown in the sea, never to rear their ugly heads again.

While we say the Shema, we close our eyes to the sights of this world of falsity that conceals Divinity, so that it will not confuse us. But, during the Amidah prayer, we pray with our eyes open, looking into the siddur, seeing how all our enemies disappear and only pure Divinity remains, like at the splitting of the Red Sea, when “Israel saw the great hand… and the people feared Havayah.” Once all negative fears disappear, all that remains is pure awe of God (which is why the silent prayer should not be interrupted in any way).

From a Kabbalistic perspective, each part of the morning prayers corresponds to a different spiritual World, or state of consciousness. We begin our prayers in Asiyah (the World of Action), rising through Yetzirah (the World of Formation) until we recite the Shema to reach Beriyah (the World of Creation). In order to rise to the next spiritual world, Atzilut (the World of Emanation), which is a state of total Divine consciousness, something must split in our soul. This is referred to as splitting the screen that divides between the lower Worlds and Atzilut.

From the Silent Prayer to its Communal Repetition

Taking this allegory of prayer as redemption one step further, we note that there were two stages to the revelation at the Red Sea:

  1. The sea split, the Jewish people walked through it and the Egyptians drowned;
  2. The Jewish people saw the Egyptians dead at the seashore and spontaneously broke out in a song of praise to God. Until that moment, the Israelites did not believe that they had been saved from the Egyptians. Once they were ultimately released from paranoia they sang God’s praises.

Correspondingly, the Amidah prayer is also divided into two parts; the silent prayer, followed by the repetition out loud by the prayer leader. The Arizal explains that during the first stage we need to beware of outside forces. This is why we are not allowed to pray out loud. This is similar to reciting the Shema, when we must close our eyes to prevent us from seeing the outside world. During the communal repetition by the prayer leader, no fear of outside forces remains at all and we can pray out loud.

The silent prayer corresponds to experiencing the Red Sea splitting, while we still sense our enemies behind us. While the Jewish people passed through the sea, the miracle was experienced more from a personal perspective, like the silent prayer, when each individual in the congregation stands alone in his silent devotion to God. During those moments, their unity as a congregation was not yet apparent. The sages state that the Red Sea split into twelve different paths, one for each tribe. Similarly, the Arizal taught that there are twelve principal prayer versions, each of which is directed through the special gate of each tribe.

The repetition corresponds to the Song of the Sea itself, which followed the final release from all foreign oppression. The Song of the Sea is a classic example of a communal prayer that is said out loud, with Moses acting as prayer leader, “The Jewish people repeated the song after Moses, word by word, as the Hallel is read.” Once the sea had returned to its regular state, everyone sang the Song of the Sea together. Just imagine how it must have sounded to hear such a large congregation of six-hundred-thousand people, all singing together. The women also participated in the song, with Miriam the Prophetess as their prayer leader, accompanied by tambourines.

The Giving of the Torah and Entering the Holy Land

Let’s complete this meditation by identifying where we experience the Giving of the Torah every day in our service of God. The basic daily routine for every Jew is to sit and learn some Torah (at least a small portion) after the morning prayers, “stepping out of the synagogue and into the study hall.” Studying Torah after prayers corresponds to the Giving of the Torah that followed the Exodus, the Splitting of the Red Sea and the Song of the Sea.

But, the story of the Jewish People’s redemption didn’t end with the Giving of the Torah. We must take care not to repeat the Sin of the Spies, who thought it was best to remain in the wilderness, in a spiritual world detached from mundane reality. Our ultimate goal is to reach the Land of Israel and to keep all the mitzvot of the Torah in our beloved homeland. In our daily service of God, this means leaving the study hall and going out to the big wide world. A person’s work and his livelihood are referred to as “the way of the land” (דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ), the way of the Land of Israel (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל). This is the public standard that the sages set, “Guide them in the practice of the way of the land” (מִנְהַג דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ). The numerical value of this phrase is 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah.[1]

The abovementioned law that one should go directly from prayer to study is deduced from the verse, “They will progress from strength to strength,”[2] i.e., from the power of prayer to the power of Torah study, from the Song of the Sea to the Giving of the Torah, and then to press forward until we reach the Land of Israel and building the Temple, as is stated explicitly at the conclusion of that very same verse, “He will appear towards God in Zion.”

Minchah, Ma’ariv and Good Night

Expanding this idea even further, studying Torah in the morning before prayers corresponds to the way the Patriarchs observed the mitzvot before the Torah was given to the Jews at Mt. Sinai. The Patriarchs occupied themselves principally with faith and knowledge of God and following in His ways. Similarly, Torah study before prayers should deal mainly with knowing God, as Jewish law states, “Before prayers one should ponder on God’s preeminence.” This is one of the most suitable preparations for prayer, as the sages teach, “Know the God of your father [and then] serve Him [in prayer, the service of the heart].” After this preliminary stage, one can observe the teaching, “Know before who you stand [in prayer].”

Our day begins, as it were, with the forefathers; then the prayers (sacrifices and Psalms) begin by descending into Egypt. As we recite the Shema we ascend from Egypt, until we stand in the Amidah prayer to experience the Splitting of the Sea and the Song of the Sea. By following our prayers with Torah study, we receive the Torah, then we enter the Land of Israel by turning to our mundane activities.

Later in the day, our dealings with the mundane begin to irk us and new foreign thoughts find their way into our minds. Then we pray Minchah, the afternoon prayer. The most irritating thought is that “My strength and the power of my hand has achieved me this success [all that I have achieved in my work day…]” As we begin to feel this way, we need once again to purify our thoughts by halting our day to stand in prayer, and give all the credit back to God, “who gives you the strength to succeed.”

Finally, when we return home from work to the warm family atmosphere we pray Ma’ariv, the evening prayer. This stage corresponds to the construction of the Temple, when we reach a state of rest and request from God, “Lie us down, our Father, in peace.”

Although the day’s work is over and it’s almost time to settle down for the night, there is sometimes another discreet service of God that takes place at home—marital union. This stage corresponds to the Holy of Holies, which is sometimes referred to as the “Bedroom.” Ma’ariv (מַעֲרִיב) is also preparation for this stage alluding to “mutual responsibility” (עֲרְבוּת הַדָדִית) and the “pleasantness” (עֲרֵבוּת) of marriage. When standing in prayer we dismiss all foreign thoughts. This prepares us for the final stage of the day when we must direct our thoughts to none other but our spouse. The Ma’ariv prayer has no communal repetition. This reflects the discreet aspect of marital union, and the care that we must take to keep it concealed from the public eye.

The following morning, we start all over again.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 7th Shevat 5772

[1]     Berachot 35b.

[2]     Psalms 84:8.

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