My Plastic Pharaoh
By Tzvi Freeman
So here I am, scrubbing out the crumbs from my ergonomic keyboard, faxing in my Deed of ChametzSale and downloading a new Haggadah. In other words, its almost Passover already. I'll soon be sitting at the Seder table with family and friends and the same question as with every one of these holidays is going to come up: What are we celebrating? What are we all here for?
My kids tell me that's no question: We're here to celebrate our freedom. That's what the holiday is called, "The Festival of Our Freedom." We were slaves in Egypt, now we are free. So let's get to the meal and celebrate.
I'm glad they feel so free. As for me, I'm still a slave and Pharaoh, king of Egypt, never died. I labor for him all week long. He tricked me into it: First, he let me have all these nice things I really wanted for nothing. Later he started demanding money for them. When, one time, I didn't pay all the money, he demanded even more money. So I have to keep working real hard to give him all the money he demands.
I carry a picture of Pharaoh in his present incarnation in my wallet. It has his very intimidating new name engraved on it. He's called "Master Card."
But my kids don't go for that. They say that in the Haggadah it says Pharaoh let us go free. Well, I know the Haggadah a little better than them. The fact is, the Haggadah, like every other piece of Torah, is full of puzzles and seeming contradictions, there just so you'll ask questions. If you read any piece of Torah, especially the Haggadah, and you don't have any questions, you obviously aren't reading right.
(That's why the "Son Who Doesn't Know How to Ask Questions" gets put at the very end of the table. Not the Wicked Son. Not the Simple Son. The "Unquestioning Son." Not just because unquestioning is very unJewish, but also because it means you're plain not paying attention to what's going on.)
To get to the point: We just finished making Kiddush, in which we call this "The Festival of Our Freedom." What do we say next? "This is the Poor Man's Bread...Now we are slaves, next year we will be free men."
Now is that a contradiction or is that a contradiction? Are we free or are we slaves?
So my kids tell me that we're celebrating that once we were slaves and then we got free and so we're celebrating. The fact that we all got into a mess and became slaves again, well, too bad. We can still commemorate the past. As long as the dinner is good.
Let me tell you something: I'm not into commemorating the past. If I'm going through all this trouble in the year 5760, 3,312 years later to clean my house for Passover and make a big Seder, it's got to have more significance than commemorating something that cancelled itself out with history anyway.
The problem of being a slave with all these contradictions, coupled with the stress of cleaning for Passover, really bothered me. So I went to see a psychotherapist. The psychotherapist listened, took notes and then told me that MasterCard is not Pharaoh. I am Pharaoh. More specifically, my unreasonable demands upon myself is the Pharaoh.
I told him my only real demand upon myself is that I should not be a slave. He said I shouldn't use that word, "should." The word "should" means I'm making an unreasonable demand upon myself. That causes stress. Stress, in his Haggadah, is slavery. Apparently, the Hebrews in Egypt were really stressed out. Building pyramids was nothing. It's the stress that did them in.
"So," I asked, "What should I do? I don't want to be a slave."
He told me I shouldn't do anything. Wanting is ok. I can want to not be a slave. Shoulding is bad. It's unreasonable to should.
Now I was really confused. I had always understood that "I should" was my liberator and "I want" was the one that got me in all this trouble to begin with. But the hour was up and there I was in the office showing my picture of Pharaoh to the psychotherapist's secretary.
"In summary," I thought, "I shouldn't say should." I needed to make another appointment with the shrink to ask whether I should or should not say that I shouldn't say should. But, at these professional rates, I didn't think my little Pharaoh would let me.
At any rate, I decided, I don't need a shrink to achieve liberation. After all, liberation is a form of enlightenment. When is the last time you met a spiritually enlightened psychotherapist? What I needed was a guru. An elevated, transcendent soul who is essentially liberated and could pull me out of all this muck and mire.
So I sat down and keyboarded out a letter, explaining everything, to the Guadalajara Rebbe. Then I fired it off to firstname.lastname@example.org. I stayed online awaiting my reply. In the meantime, I electronically paid the bills I was incurring by staying online so long in order to get a swift reply. My little Pharaoh came in useful again.
Then it came. Verbatim, as follows:
"We are all prisoners. The act of existence is our crime. The universe is our prison. Our bodies and our personage is our cell. The keys to liberation are held tight in the fists of our own egos."
Then a little note: "see Tanya, chapter 47. Also read Bringing Heaven Down to Earth by Tzvi Freeman."
I meditated, I sipped licorice tea, I meditated some more, and I got it. MasterCard is not Pharaoh. "I want" is not Pharaoh. Neither is "I should". It's not the want or the should, it's the "I."
I looked in Tanya, the classic Chassidic work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 47. There he says that when G‑d gave us the Torah, He gave us Infinitude. We connect to Him with the Torah and we are free because we are then infinite and unbounded as He is. And he writes, "...and so there is nothing stopping anybody except for his own will, for if a person does not want..."
Again, the same idea. We are all free. But our egos clutch tightly the keys.
How do I get my ego to let go of the keys?
For philosophy you can go to an enlightened tzaddik somewhere in Mexico. For practical, real-time liberation, I need The Rebbe. The Lubavitcher Rebbe.
This is the practical advice of the Rebbe, in a talk one Passover:
"Make a part of your life an act that takes you beyond your bounds, helping people that are not part of your family or circle of friends, doing something that does not fit within your own self-definition. Invite someone to your seder who you're not so comfortable with. At first, it may not feel so good. But you have set yourself free."
So, again this year, I come to my seder. I leave my own little world of my own puny self and I walk through the door into something infinite, timeless and eternal, because it is bound with an infinite, timeless and eternal G‑d. I am no longer part of me. I am part of us and part of His Torah and therefore part of Him.
And to prove it, I say, "Let all those who are needy come and join our seder. No matter who."
I have broken free. This year, we should all break free. Not just at the seder, but for every moment of our lives. Forever.
This year in Jerusalem.