“In every generation a person must see himself as if he has come out of Egypt.” – The Passover Haggadah
The Hasidic Master, Natan of Nemirov, teaches that in every life we go through the process of freeing ourselves from the consciousness of Egypt. The consciousness of Egypt is the physical awareness of the lower self. It is the mindset that declares that this world is all there is, and the only things that matter are the ones that are tangible and concrete. Whenever we manage to rise above our material awareness and lift our minds toward the Infinite and Eternal, it is a yitsiat Mitsrayim, an exodus from our own personal Egypt – a moment of individual spiritual redemption.
The process of freeing ourselves from the hold of material consciousness is a constant struggle. The more we try to free ourselves, the more the opposition of our physical nature grows, the more our inner resistance stiffens. Rebbe Natan sees this process of “movement and counter-movement” taking place on a personal level in the inner struggles that Pharaoh goes through after each of the plagues. He considers Pharaoh’s reactions to the plagues a perfect example of how we become bound by our attachments and inherent tendencies.
In the wake of the initial destruction that befalls Egypt, Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites go into the desert and worship God. Once the immediate effect of a plague is relieved, however, Pharaoh hardens his heart again and he refuses to let the people go. And despite the ever-spreading devastation, the same scenario repeats itself again and again.
In fact, Pharaoh’s opposition and inner resistance continues even after the Children of Israel have actually left Egypt. Once again, Pharaoh changes his mind, gathers his army together, and chases after the Israelites. He finally relinquishes his desire to keep the Israelites in Egypt, after all of his charioteers have been drowned in the sea and he is left alone and powerless.
Sri Ramakrishna compared the way in which we hold on to our desires to the behavior of a bird of prey with a fish in its mouth:
“In a certain place the fishermen were catching fish. A kite swooped down and snatched a fish. At the sight of the fish, about a thousand crows chased the kite and made a great noise with their cawing. Whichever way the kite flew with the fish, the crows followed it. The kite flew to the south and the crows followed it there. The kite flew to the north and still the crows followed after it. The kite went east and west, but with the same result. As the kite began to fly about in confusion, lo, the fish dropped from its mouth. The crows at once let the kite alone and flew after the fish. Thus relieved of his worries, the kite sat on the branch of a tree and thought: ‘that wretched fish was the root of all my troubles. I have now got rid of it and therefore I am at peace.’” 
Like the kite, we hold on tight to our physical desires and yet wonder why the crows of anxiety, stress and restlessness will not leave us alone. Only when we get rid of our worldly attachments will these “crows” leave us. Only then will we be able to find inner freedom and peace of mind.
How do we react to the inner onslaught from our lower nature? How do we overcome our worries and fears? According to Rebbe Natan, the events at the Red Sea provide us with guidance in this matter.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were filled with a strong faith in God and Moses. Once they reached the Red Sea, however, and saw Pharaoh and his six hundred charioteers racing towards them, their newfound faith and confidence evaporated in an instant, and they fell into panic and paralysis.
Even Moses was taken aback when he saw the Egyptians approaching. He turned to God and made a desperate plea for guidance. In response to his prayer, God tells Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward” (Exodus 14:15). In reaction to this Divine utterance, Nachshon ben Aminadav took the initiative and jumped into the sea. In response to his leap of faith, the waters split in two and the Children of Israel passed “on dry ground through the midst of the sea.” (Exodus 14:29)
Nachshon’s behavior, Rebbe Natan explains, shows us how to respond when our fears and passions come rushing upon us. Instead of panicking or bemoaning our fate; we need to ignore our inner turmoil, gather our faith and the strength of our will, and go one-pointedly towards God. If we act in this manner, Rebbe Natan assures us, then the “threatening waters” will part and we will stride forward on “dry ground through the midst of the sea.”
The spiritual life is a complex and multi-levelled process. There are a numerous stages on the path to inner liberation. Though all of us will one day reach that sublime goal, we are each at a different point along the journey. A unique approach to the spiritual life is needed for each of us, with its own individual set of aspirations and goals.
Rebbe Natan sees this truth reflected not only in the trials of the Exodus from Egypt, but also in the many difficulties that the Children of Israel faced in the desert and during their battles to conquer the land of Canaan. He, therefore, divides the journey to freedom into three distinct stages:
In the first stage, we struggle to get out of Egypt, to transcend our life of material living. Once we have left the land of Egypt, we then move on to the next step where we cross the desert and reach Mount Sinai. Here, we receive an inspirational vision and experience the living presence of God. Yet even after we have attained this vision, our work is not complete. We still need to conquer the Promised Land, to bind our consciousness to the spiritual realm and become one with our Soul. Only then are our labors finished, only then can we relax and rest in God.
Some of us are fighting to overcome our lower nature, others are searching for inspiration, and still others are striving for God realization. Each stage is a worthy struggle. Each stage requires courage, wisdom and faith. We need to look in our hearts and determine which stage we have reached in our journey. It is no use trying to enter the Promised Land, if we are not yet equipped to live in the higher realm.
At the same time, no matter what level we find ourselves on, we can all strive for greater freedom. We can confront our own Pharaoh, and overcome the obstacles that lie between God and us. We can refuse to remain one moment longer in the slavery of our personal Egypt. We can make this Pesach a ‘yitsiat Mitzrayim’, an exodus from the bondage and limitation of our lower nature into the vast expanses of our Higher Self.
Copyright © 2013, by Yoel Glick
- ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda↵