What is the intersection between slavery and freedom, the nervous system and Moshe, history and the present?
Last week we started the book of Exodus in the weekly Torah reading. It follows our story of slavery to eventual freedom. Although the Exodus happened 2500 years ago and the idea of being slaves to Pharaoh seems remote and not relatable, we are commanded to remember the story of the Exodus twice a day in the prayers. The Talmud also states "In every generation, a person must see themselves as if they personally left Egypt".
There must be more to the story of the Exodus than just a remembrance of our history. It is our story of origin as a people. It holds many truths about what we've experienced as a nation and our individual stories.
In the most intense period of the affliction and slavery, Moshe appears on the scene and tells the Israelites that G-d will redeem them and take them out of their slavery. The Torah says that the people "Did not hear his words from their shortness of breath". The degree to which their suffering consumed them did not allow them to hear anything outside of what their current reality presented to them.
In Chassidic teachings and Jewish mysticism, Egypt represents not only a geographical location but a psychological state. It is a state of constriction and limitation. Mitzrayim the Hebrew word for Egypt contains the same root word as border, limitations and constriction. This is definitely more relatable. We are all in states of Egypt at times. The constriction can be in a more general sense of having limited beliefs that hold us back, or circumstances that seem impossible to overcome in order to achieve what we would like. There is an even more visceral Egypt in which the constriction causes what the verse describes as "shortness of breath". This is a physical state of hyper-arousal and dysregulation. It is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. In this state, every part of our bodies constricts. We develop tunnel vision; literally or mentally (impossible to see other possibilities or solutions), our heart beats faster, our breathing is shallow and quick, our digestive system shuts down. In this survival state, it's impossible to access our prefrontal cortex i.e. rational thinking.
What is the difference between a slave and a free man/woman? A slave has their free choice removed from them. They become a victim of their circumstances at the will of their master, with no ability to maintain agency and actively choose. This is what the state of Egypt causes, and it begins physically when the constriction robs us of access to our higher thinking.
Moshe represented the possible way out, the wise leader who can help us out of our exiles. We each contain a spark of Moses within us, the Self that is wise, calm, compassionate and able to see the full picture. It can help us choose according to what is in alignment with who we truly are. The first step to being able to access the spark of Moshe in us, is to breathe. Just like the Jewish slaves, it is impossible to hear what the Moshe within us is trying to tell us when short of breath. Through deep breathing, regulation of the nervous system and bringing the body back to a parasympathetic state, we can regain access to our prefrontal cortex, to our inner Moshe. In this way we can be free people who are able to choose and be in alignment with who we truly are rather than reacting to instinct and becoming victims of our circumstances.
This is why we have the twice daily reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. We enter the state of Egypt many times per day. The Torah gives us the tools to free ourselves from our inner Egypt as many times as is necessary. We remember that we have the power to release ourselves and overcome the limitations we feel. The goal is not to reach a specific destination but to be able to constantly achieve freedom, each time on a more refined level until we can move through our days as truly free people with access to our inner selves and living in alignment with what our Soul desires which is true free choice.