Passover’s Call to Action—Escape from the Slavery of Self-Imposed Limitations
04/12/2014 - 19:46
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

At the Passover Seder, we recall the Israelites’ redemption from Egyptian slavery.  It is an appropriate time to examine the link between Egyptian slavery and beliefs that can keep us in bondage.

The “Egypt Within”

The Hebrew word for Egypt, “Mitzrayim,” closely resembles the Hebrew word “maytzarim,”—boundaries, constraints, narrow and confining spaces. None of us is physically enslaved, but some of us experience “the Egypt within,” believing that we are trapped by our disability, confined to “narrow spaces,” from which we cannot escape to live fulfilling lives. 

Despite efforts towards inclusion, many of us with disabilities are bombarded by negative limiting stereotypical messages, heard from family members, the “man in the street,” and even well-meaning but misguided professionals.  In such an environment, it is all too easy to inhabit an “inner Egypt," jumping to conclusions like

  •  “I can never become a lawyer because I am dyslexic;”
  • “I’ll never marry because my speech impediment makes it hard for others to understand me.  They think I’m not intelligent;”
  • “I am a ‘defective Jew’ because I am not able to read from the Torah like all the other Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.”

Parents and institutions can also be enslaved by assumptions and beliefs:

  •  "My child can experience Shabbat only through events for children with special needs;”
  •  “Accommodating a person with a disability is always expensive;”
  • “It’s always best for counselors, health professionals and ‘special needs organizations’ to take the lead in setting goals for anybody who has a disability.”

Conquering the “Inner Egyptian”

Why did God command the Israelites to slaughter and eat the Egyptian sheep-god in full view of their taskmasters?  It was necessary for the Israelites to affirm through action their belief that they were no longer slaves.

Similarly, if we truly believe that disability need not confine us to a life dominated by limitations, we must go beyond beliefs to actions.  Rather than confining ourselves to “special needs” events, it is time for us to be a regular part of “mainstream events,” with appropriate accommodations.  If we want jobs and would like to raise a family, why not try to find a person who shares our disability and has succeeded in his/her career and marriage?

A Sobering Statistic

Commenting on Exodus Chapter 13 Verse 18, Rashi cites a tradition that 80% of the Israelite slaves died in Egypt just before the Redemption.  Despite the miracle of the Ten Plagues, they couldn’t bring themselves to leap from a slavish mentality to a lifestyle of freedom.

A Time to Become Free

Abandoning a comfortable slavish belief system and replacing it with the many uncertainties that freedom brings is not easy.  Let us tap into the faith that has enabled our people to live free, despite the many “Mitzrayims” during our history.

As we celebrate at the Seder, we are not just remembering the Exodus from Egyptian slavery.  We are reliving it.  There is no better time to begin an exodus from our “inner Egypt.”

Best wishes for a meaningful and liberating Passover.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons --boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at info@yadempowers.org

Comments

A beautifully written, inspirational article, but also a troubling one. I have no problem with Rabbi Levy's message, what's not to like? But, I do have a problem with the approach that he takes to make his point. The "Egypt within" concept that he espouses is nowhere to be found in the text of the Torah.

Who in Rabbi Levy's analogy is Pharao? And who, in his analogy, did Hashem strike with the 10 makot? Also, chazal teaches that the reason why the Bnei Israel had to leave Egypt in haste is because they had sunk to the lowest level of holiness possible and one more wrung down, they would have been beyond salvation. And, the generation that was delivered from Egypt was doomed to die in the desert because of the sin of the golden calf. Does Rabbi Levy associate any of this with people with disability?

Please don't get me wrong. I deeply respect Rabbi Levy's personal accomplishments and I agree 100% with the message of his article. What I do have a problem with is that he took a traditional text and twisted it well beyond its intended meaning (one of Hashem personally intervening in human history to liberate His people from the bondage of the Egyptians and to bring them to Eretz Israel), to make a point that he (Rabbi Levy) supports (overcoming one's personal real and perceived limitations). The overall message that Rabbi Levy delivers is true and inspiring. The analogy that he used, though, is not appropriate.

To end on a positive note, though, one could find an example in the story of the Exodus that does support Rabbi Levy's point of overcoming real & perceived limitations. Chazal teaches that Moshe Rabenu had a speech impediment and was therefore unwilling to speak to Pharao. Hashem suggested that moshe take his brother, Aaron, along as the spokesperson.

Moshe did so but, with time, he overcame his fear of public speaking so that he also spoke with Pharoa directly and to the hundreds of thousands of Bnei Israel and, above all, with Hashem Himself. Not bad for someone who originally stuttered and quite an inspiration to the rest of us with our own personal limitations. And this is a lesson that can be derived directly from the text of the Torah.

Jennifer, my sentiments exactly! Thank you, Rabbi Levy.

This is a REALLY terrific piece. I love the concept- Egypt within. Well done.

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