This shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol – the Great Shabbat. One reason is that there is a special haftarah from Malachi, the last book in Nevi’im, prophets –
3:23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the (Yom Adonai Hagadol v’hanora) awesome, fearful day of Adonai. 24 He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents…
Hagadol comes from that awesome great day of Adonai, but it also comes from the tradition that rabbis would spend this shabbat teaching, reminding people, about how to prepare for Pesach, how to follow the halakha, how to get themselves ready. And they would do so at great length, making it hagadol.
So I want to talk, not at great length, and not about halakha, but about how to prepare for pesach in a spiritual sense. Because pesach is about nothing less than the concept of freedom and our thoughts throughout the holy time and especially at our seders should be on freedom, and the late rabbi David Hartman z”l, one of the towering people of our time, wrote that our seders should be a seminar on freedom.
For me, this year, as every year, I think about how to free ourselves from the psychological slavery we keep ourselves in: addictions, depression, fear, thought patterns we can’t or won’t stop.
Some of us have started to read together a book called Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr. Daniel Siegel. Siegel defines Mindsight as “a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds,” that allows us to make connections and forge neural pathways that changes the brain and how we react. As I started reading it, on the recommendation of my teacher Rabbi Mordecai Finley, I realized how much it reminded me of Mussar, the ancient/modern spiritual practice that “shines the light on the causes of suffering and shows us how to reach our highest spiritual potential” (Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness, p. 7).
The practices of Mussar and Mindsight share important insights. On one hand, both Jewish tradition and neuroscience show us that our nature or our genetic make up make it hard for us to overcome the millennia old habits of flight or flight, or the fear of loss that propelled the building of the golden calf when Moses was late down the mountain. Change takes time and change is hard work that requires us to work consciously and mindfully every step of the way, to get past our reptilian brains.
Another book lit up on my iPad, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, by Ron Heifetz (yes, Larry’s brother), discusses the importance of focusing and reflection: he suggests that sometimes we have to step away from the dance floor to the balcony to really see what the dance looks like, what our interactions look like. That how we have done things might have worked before, but maybe not so much today.
All of this returns to the story of Passover, and especially the issue of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Has that ever concerned you? If God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart for the last five plagues, how is that Pharaoh’s fault? How can we blame him? (We had a lengthy contentious discussion at one of my seders about this – people got quite angry at God for this manipulation.)
Maimonides (1135-1204) had an answer to this, as told by R. David Hartman: Maimonides, who did not take much of the Torah literally, taught that none of the biblical instances of God’s taking away someone’s freedom should be read literally. These freedom removal instances, he wrote in his Mishneh Torah, (Hilchot Teshuva 6), were each a result of the person’s own actions. He understood, back in the 12th century, that we create habits of behavior, which, when practiced over a long enough period of time, obliterate the possibility of change. So the more Pharaoh hardened his heart, the harder it became for him to access any empathy. Pharaoh made his own choices and formed his own neural pathways.
Maimonides believed that God helped those who “come to purify themselves” – in the way God builds the laws of nature, into the very essence of our nature. He taught that God structured our universe so that we humans would be driven to act righteously, or as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the universe is bent toward justice.” Once we set out on a path, for justice or power, and we make ourselves at home there, we become wired to keep on that path. Maimonides’ 12th century thinking is remarkably attuned to the knowledge in current neuroscience and modern psychology.
Therefore, Pharaoh, according to Maimonides, through his own habits, his ongoing refusal to let us go, created his own reality, within the laws of nature. Hartman sees Pharaoh therefore as the antithesis of freedom, the embodiment of slavery of us and his own people whose world shattered and of himself.
Our behavior creates the neural pathways that determine how hard we have to work to become the people we could be, we were born to be. We know that people who become entrenched in addiction often have to hit bottom before they see a reason to change, and then that change requires activity and commitment every single day, one day at a time.
Jewish tradition provides the structure found in 12 step programs, in which we acknowledge there is a higher power that asks us to be responsible for our own behavior, and for our community. For example, the 613 mitzvot, all those commandments represent the number that adds the bones in our body and the days of the year: we are supposed to follow in that path – which is what halakha means – every single day, with every bone in our body, every fiber of our being.
One of the ways we can do that at this time, and every day, is to work for the end of physical slavery in our time. While the percentage of people who are slaves – actual slaves – now is smaller than at any other time, more people are slaves than have every been slaves: 27 million people are estimated to be slaves now, all over the world, including the US. And in the old days, slaves used to cost a pretty sum of money – the equivalent of $40,000 each, so that slave owners would want to make the slaves’ lives decent enough to produce. Nowadays on the streets of Haiti, you can purchase a slave and papers for the slave to bring her or him to the US to work for you for as little as $100. $100 and you can own a person. How well do you think those people are treated?
Another issue with modern slavery – oh, there are so many – but another one is that slaves do not contribute enough to an industry to actually make them work. While cotton is STILL picked by slaves, it doesn’t need to be. While coffee and chocolate are still farmed by slaves, other producers manage to pay their workers a living wage. And generally those producers grow a higher quality product. And often other aspects of the product are better as well: respect for the earth often accompanies fair trade items.
Of course, the industry that most uses slaves is the sex industry. Women and children are spirited across borders to serve in bordellos and beaten until they submit. Slavery to soothe men’s desires. And I think that’s enough said on that account.
The amazing thing is that the antislavery movement, and the fair trade movement, are strong and growing. And that we – in many albeit not all cases, have an option – to choose to put our money where our Jewish values are. We can consciously choose to buy products whose production stream is clean of slavery.
So I implore you to take the step to learn more about the slaves who support your life style, and find out how you can let those people go. Check out www.slaveryfootprint.org as a place to start.
May we all have a Passover in which our seders ARE seminars in freedom – both our own emotional and psychological ones and for people in this country and around the world who will spend this Passover in chains.