For many Jewish thinkers over the ages the lessons of Passover and the Exodus were not exhausted in their historical memories. The central themes that dominate the holiday were seen as metaphors and symbols for many facets of individual human psychology and religious experience.
In formulas that echo the assertion of the Haggadah, that "each individual must regard himself as if he himself had escaped from Egypt," Philo portrays "leaving Egypt" as an internal struggle that must be waged continually in every person's life. It is the fight to liberate one's mind from the temptations of the body, symbolized by Egypt, which is always trying to hold us back from the road leading to the freedom of virtuous living.
According to the Biblical account, even after leaving Egypt the zeal of the Israelites was constantly being impeded by the "mixed multitude" among them, who would bewail their fate and longingly recall the fleshpots of Egypt. For Philo there is a "mixed multitude" in each of us, a part of the soul that remains under the dominion of the passions and irrational thinking. In the wicked this element exercises control.
The mind of the wicked man is indeed a "mixed multitude" of conflicting opinions, forever being pulled in opposing directions by the many false ideas that strive to lead him away from the single path of truth and goodness.
As in the case of the historical Exodus, the spiritual liberation from control of our irrational desires cannot be accomplished in a single moment. The contradictory directions of the mixed multitude keep us wandering in a confused wilderness instead of travelling the simple and direct route to religious fulfilment. According to Philo the very name "Passover" signifies that the true lover of wisdom is always practising "passing over from the body and passions" in a quest to purify his soul.
According to the Zohar the symbol of Egypt represents the "underside of wisdom" owing to its associations with magic and alchemy. The righteous must refine themselves by descending into the kiln of Egypt.
This is a pattern of spiritual development that dates back to Abraham, who had to sojourn in Egypt in order to test the strength of his new-found faith.
"It is the same [the Zohar concludes] with Abraham's children. When the Holy One wished to make them unique, a perfect people, and to draw them near to him--had they not gone down to Egypt and been refined there first, they would not have become his special ones."
Some exegetes however were able to bridge this gap and dwell upon the close interconnections between visible history and the underlying spiritual levels. For Jews, it is argued, our fate as a nation is inevitably a reflection of the quality of our religious life.
This point was effectively demonstrated in a comment attributed to the Hasidic preacher Rabbi Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov.
Rabbi Mikhal was once approached by a student who was troubled by the wording of God's promise to Moses in Exodus 6:1 that Pharaoh would drive the Israelites out of Egypt "with a strong hand." Why, the student asked, should a slave who is being offered his freedom need to be forcibly driven out? Won't he run willingly from his slavery?
The Rabbi answered that Israel's exile is always self-inflicted. Only when the Jews decide to release themselves can the demonic powers inside them be vanquished, and only then will the earthly rulers lose their power to subjugate Israel.
Concluded Rabbi Mikhal: Until Israel in Egypt declared themselves willing to return from spiritual exile, God was as it were powerless to help them. In the end, the sparks of holiness that were implanted in the enslaved Israelites awakened and were able to overpower the demonic forces of Egypt, which could not endure them any more and proceeded to drive them out.
This is a message that would appear to have particular relevance this year, as the world seems to be bursting out in freedom and liberation. We have seen testimony that the human spirit can overcome political oppression; but on the other hand, we must remain aware that the achievement of political independence, in the absence of a true spiritual emancipation, is not the full realization of freedom.
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First Publication: JS, April 6 1990.