The Sea Splitting Open Within
Big changes are afoot at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The population of the Hebrews in the land of Egypt was increasing: “Bnai Yisrael paroo, v’yishritzu, vayirbu vaya’aztmu bimod m’od” the children of Israel multiplied greatly. Pharaoh, in response to the shifting demographics, called on his people saying: “hava nitchochma lo”, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they continue to grow in number and become a potential threat to the power and stability of our society. And so began the years of enslavement and oppression in the deserts of Egypt. The more Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrews, the more they increased and, in return, the more Pharaoh responded with harshness—caught in the seemingly inescapable cycle of responding to fear by exerting control.
Pharaoh’s attempt to gain control was expressed through the increasingly harsh oppression of the Hebrews. First with slave labor that crushed our spirit as we built garrison cities for Pharaoh to securely lock away his material resources. Then, through his decree to the midwives that all male babies be killed. Later, Pharaoh makes our labor even more oppressive by taking away the raw materials we needed to build, yet keeping constant the quota of our output. Again and again we are refused when we ask to be allowed to leave Mitzrayim to go and worship our Gd.
As Pharaoh tightened his grip on the Hebrews he similarly tightened his grip on himself. The harsher his outward actions became, the more he physically closed himself off and shut down. In Exodus 7:15 we read of Pharaoh going out early in the morning down to the Nile. In his comment on this verse Rashi tells us that Pharaoh would do so in order to perform his bodily needs there. According to Rashi, Pharaoh would hide his bodily actions, attempting to convince those around him and perhaps even himself that he did not need to clear his bowels. Pharaoh distances himself from the most basic and necessary functions of the human body. Of this Avivah Zornberg writes, “That cycle, depending on vital traffic through the orifices of the body, is denied by one who claims to be above change, beyond the cycles of in and out, hunger and fullness, vicissitudes of time and bodily state.”
Not only did Pharaoh try to escape from this natural process of his body, but he also began to shut down his senses. Repeatedly during the contest between Moses and Aaron and the Egyptian magicians to perform plagues, we read “vayehazek lev Paroah.” Rambam tells us that Pharaoh was afraid and he reacted to this fear by stiffening his heart. Terrified of what could happen, Pharaoh constructed a barrier around himself, creating insulating layers to separate himself from the changes that were happening all around him. Further on, throughout the plagues we read, “caved lev Paroah,” Pharaoh’s heart grew dense and heavy, and “lo shama” that Pharoah didn’t listen or heed the words of Moshe. He hid his bodily activities, his heart became stiff and heavy, his senses became dim and he closed off his ability to hear to feel, and to change.
Each morning as part of our liturgy, and continually throughout the day we bless Asher Yatzar, thanking Gd for creating within our body openings and cavities. We acknowledge that if but one of them were blocked or ruptured we would no longer be able to live. Were we to make this blessing every time we went to the bathroom as traditional practice calls for, this would be the most frequently recited blessing in our liturgy. This prayer is so important, I think, not only because it creates a structure for us to acknowledge and feel gratitude for the incredible workings of our body, but also because it reminds us of an important spiritual principle. Our body is a vessel of transformation into which food enters, becomes nourishment, energy, and nutrients, and then is released. Asher Yatzar is a reminder of the important fact that taking place within our body is a constant cycle of renewal and transformation.
In addition to prayer there is a myriad of physical practices that help us to cultivate body awareness and allow us to learn from our body. Yoga is a practice of yoking, uniting or connecting, our physical movements—the body, to our breath—the soul. Like Asher Yatzar, within this practice lies the ability to notice and learn through the body that which we desire to bring to the world. Bring yourself into the posture of Kapotasana—Pigeon. Front leg bent, knee out to the side, shin working towards parallel at the front of the mat. Back leg stretching long behind you, hips centered, sinking towards the floor. Feel gravity begin to work on the body as the muscle in the outer right thigh leg stretches deeply and the hip flexor and psoas of the left leg start to lengthen, slowly undoing the countless hours of sitting we endure in modern life.
As the pose begins to work on you, the mind yanks itself away from the feeling in your legs and calls for help. The mind tires much more quickly than the body. The deeper the stretch becomes and the more intense the bodily sensation, the more frantically the mind looks for something, anything to escape into. Rather than allow our consciousness to dwell in the tentative opening in the right gluteus, our natural response is to focus on any distraction we can find. The mind leaves the body and, the yolk between mind and body being broken, the body becomes tight and clenched. In order to open the hips in this pose the body requires the focus of the mind and the constant flow of the breath. It is only by letting the quality of our attention rest in the point of tension that the place of hardening within us can become a point for transformation. And it is when we find this yoking that our practice on the mat becomes a practice for how we move through the rest of life.
Becoming tight and clenched within himself and in his outward approach to the world, Pharaoh tries to destroy the relationship between the Hebrews and their bodies as well. His oppression served not only to break their spirits but, as Rashi comments, the hard labor that Pharaoh subjugated the Children of Israel with was meant to crush and break the body. If it is true that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “as long as the mind is enslaved the body can never be free,” the reverse is equally true: without freedom and openness of the body the mind can never truly be free.
In Lekutei Moharan Rebbe Nachman discusses the profound connection between body and mind. He says that it is vital to cultivate a relationship with the body because the soul needs to share its insights with the body. The mind, as he describes, imprints its spiritual insights into the body so that if the mind should freak out or lose its grip on reality for a time, the groundedness and tangibility of the body can bring the mind back. Taking this comment of Rebbe Nachman further, I would say that both the mind and the body take in information. Each is able to attain spiritual insights but each needs the other for one to fully comprehend and internalize the learning.
We often say about ourselves that we are a people who understand the importance of freedom because we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. This trope becomes an essential part of our identity as Jews. The Pesach seder through which we retell the story of our enslavement and commemorate yitziat mitzrayim, our coming out of Egypt, is arguably the most widely observed Jewish ritual today. Some say that we are still living out this move from slavery to freedom. As it says in the Mishnah in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we ourselves are living through yitziat mitzrayim.
If this is so, in order to truly fulfill this directive of the Mishnah, we must be a people who are continually internalizing that feeling of the sea splitting open within ourselves, within our very being, in order to truly understand and live out what it means to let justice roll down, to issue forth from us like waters. The anthropologist Mary Douglas writes in her seminal work Purity and Danger that we can “see the body as a symbol of society and see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.” If this is so, working on the level of our physical being to access the spiritual and the spiritual to open to the physical in return has benefits for our limbs, our psyche and our soul. Living out redemption means continually engaging in the process of moving from those places of mitzrayim, of constriction within us, to the vast openness we can feel when we truly let go. While Pharaoh shut himself down and closed off his senses, the Psalmist writes, “I am YHVH your GD who brought you out of the land of mitzrayim; open.”