One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Matrix.” It is a story of a dystopian future in which humanity has been taken over by computers. The catch is that the humans are completely unaware of their captivity. People’s brains are all plugged into a vast computer network which simulates a mundane world in which they live, work, play, and go about their virtual lives. In reality, their physical bodies are being used as an energy source to feed this massive computer matrix. There are a few humans in this story who become aware of what their actual situation is—that their world is a farce created by machines—and once they realize that, they can bend computer reality around them by constantly remembering what they actually are and that they are merely in a simulated world. Once these enlightened individuals becomes cognizant, they can bend the rules of this simulated reality, breaking the tethers of the fictional world in which they’ve been “living,” and thereby inspiring others to do the same. In this way, they forge their path towards freeing themselves completely of this cyber-world and embrace a new reality.
If this sounds a bit complicated, it is, but it works on the big screen, primarily because it’s science fiction. If you’ve ever read 1984 or Brave New World, the themes are similar: Humanity trapped in a lifeless world where, in order to control the masses, people are instructed how to think and act, and the protagonist in each is a free-thinking person who tries to buck the system in order to reclaim the freedoms once granted to all human beings.
This literary theme is not new, nor property of the 20th or 21st centuries. In fact, we have but to look to our Sacred Scripture to see the same story play out: A people oppressed, denied the freedom to be who they are, and a hero rising up to liberate this people in order that they might act as a free nation. Sound familiar? It is the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the story we are instructed time and again that we should remember throughout the generations. Every single Friday evening, when we make the Sabbath Kiddush, we raise our cup in thanksgiving and are commanded to “zeikher litziyat mitzrayim,” to “remember the Exodus from Egypt.” And at this season of Passover, we are not only supposed to remember the Exodus, but to in fact re-enact it!
At our seder tables this week, whether at one or two (or sometimes four or five, depending on how many model, alternative, or interfaith seders you might have attended! I’m up to five so far myself!), we recalled the struggle of our biblical forebears against the Egyptians and the Pharaoh and how the Divine liberated us from our enslavement. Perhaps in an effort to modernize the message, some of you talked about all sorts of enslavement we see in the modern day in the forms of bigotry, ethnic cleansing, evil dictatorships, and so on, answering the call of social justice.
But all through this traditional practice and this week of consuming matzah and refraining from eating khameitz, I can’t help but think that the Matrix of the movies still has us—that we are still slaves within our own minds and within society, but we are either unaware or unwilling to free ourselves from the shackles of the well worn patterns of our daily lives.
Case in point (and this is not intended to excoriate anyone here): This past Tuesday morning, we held worship services for the First Morning of Passover. Passover is a major Jewish holy day. Including Rabbi Weiner and myself, there were six people in attendance—not even a minyan! Why is that? Is it because our worship isn’t compelling? Is it because people do not find meaning when they come here? I think it is, in part perhaps, because as modern Jews, we have found divergent ways to celebrate the Jewish calendar, and worship isn’t the central way we find meaning in our holidays. But all of you are here this evening for Sabbath worship. And I would bet that, in principle, you agree with the notion that there is value to coming together with a common purpose and intention to give thanks and praise as a community.
We hold many such principles, whether it’s about our religious life, about being environmentally conscious, being socially aware, politically correct, even getting exercise and being healthy… we have core values and beliefs, but so many are in principle only. In principle, we would like to pray together more often. In principle, we know we should go to the gym three times a week. In principle, we want to make a greater impact on fixing the world by using less energy and thereby producing less pollution. These, and many others, are good principles, but without acting on them, what value do they hold?
What prevents us from so acting? Is there a Pharaoh or taskmaster over us, holding us back from making good choices for ourselves and others? Are their chains pinning us down, preventing us from lifting our arms to help those in need? Are there Egyptian whips cracking over our heads forcing us to build cities and monuments to gods we do not worship?
In a manner of speaking, yes.
I recall when in seminary learning how to make the Passover seder and story not only modern, but compelling and so meaningful and relevant that it couldn’t help but inspire us to strive for real, tangible freedom to which all can relate. It all has to do with understanding the Exodus from Egypt not as a historical event in the past, but rather an ongoing struggle and journey of the present.
What is this story, then, and how can we understand it? Begin with Egypt. In Hebrew, the word for “Egypt” is “Mitzrayim.” The root of this word is “tzar,” meaning “narrow.” Egypt was a narrow place because it was built up along the Nile river making it a narrow region geographically in the physical sense. And it was, according to the Bible, in this narrow place in which we started as a free people, but then became enslaved.
Let us not read Egypt as a place, but a state of being. Throughout our lives, we find ourselves in narrow places when we are narrow of mind. We allow ourselves to become narrow when we are selfish, greedy, withholding. We enslave our minds when we become creatures of habit, inflexible, non-thinking. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is not about our ancestors leaving a physical country—it is our story, today… the one we write when we make the effort to free our minds from negative patterns and allow our minds and hearts to be open to the call of our principles.
So going back to this past Tuesday morning, for example: There may be among us those who would come to worship, to pray freely, but make excuses and suppress our principles in favor of the task-master of expediency, or the Pharaoh of indifference, or the slavery of non-commitment. Perhaps the first morning of Passover is not the greatest example, since we as a Temple have not emphasized the first day of a festival as important as the last with its memorial prayers of Yizkor. I do know for a fact that when it comes to Rosh Hashanah and even Yom Kippur, there are those who choose to go to work or stay home, rather than join us together as a community united because they don’t feel free enough to do so—they feel too beholden to work to make a one or two day sacrifice which, in the end, might lighten their souls and spirits rather than burdening them.
Perhaps a more concrete example is our principle of environmentalism. We constantly hear from the government to the media to our neighbors talking about making the world a greener place. But how many of us are willing to change our driving habits? Our energy usage? Lower our thermostats? Use less air conditioning? Drink tap water instead of bottled water? Eat less meat? We talk about a future in which there is no global warming and cars operate on hydrogen, but there are so many things we can do today, now, that have a real impact. But we are in the Egypt of long-standing habits. We are bound in chains of convenience. Our supposed “comfort” is actually a fleeting notion, whereas actually fixing our world’s ecological problems today will make the whole world a lot more comfortable for many more generations to come. We have to free our minds from habitual ways of thinking in order that we might truly make a difference in the world.
This slavery of the mind is pervasive. Anywhere and anytime we say, “That’s a good idea on paper, but…” we are not allowing our hearts to be liberated to thinking outside the box and perhaps making real change. Take something common to us all: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony. There is not a week that goes by here when I don’t speak with a parent about the avarice and waste of a bar or bat mitzvah party, and yet they say, “but my family expects it,” or “all my other friends are doing it,” or “isn’t this how everyone does it here?” How about a brave family standing up and saying, “We realize our son or daughter has reached a great milestone, but this isn’t a wedding! How about just simply lunch for everyone!” And sometimes, that does happen. But much more often than not, a good principle becomes overridden by the Pharaoh of peer and societal pressures.
Even after Passover is over, our prayers continue to echo this sentiment: “Remember the Exodus from Egypt.” Remember. Why are we continually being commanded to remember? Because we keep forgetting! According to the Torah, why were we freed from Egypt? Was it it to be enslaved once again? Was it to be free to do whatever we wished and thereby becoming slaves to our own wanton desires? No. The text is clear: In Exodus 7:16 the Torah states, “And say to Pharaoh, “Adonai, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, ‘Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.’” The Torah repeats this refrain: that we were freed from bondage so that we would be able to fully engage the Divine.
And what does this mean? We engage the Divine when we examine our principles and follow them despite the narrowness in our hearts. We stand up to corruption and temptation when it assails our souls. We resist a life of creature comforts for the sake of the comfort of all human kind. We no longer make excuses to not live up to our fullest potential. And then, when that time comes, we will have truly understood and embraced what “freedom” really means. We were not freed from slavery in order to become slaves once again. We need to free ourselves in our own day so that we can ensure a freedom for all of our sisters and brothers.
May the Divine spark in each of us inspire and encourage us to fan that same spark in one another. In this way we will be a free human family.