Walk like an Egyptian


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson explores the story of Passover through the lens of a pivotal scene from “Star Wars” and shares how to leave behind our personal “Egypt” of narrowness and find freedom.

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Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan. I love the light sabers. I love the spaceships. I love the score. Seriously, what is not to like about these movies? 

There’s a scene in the very first Star Wars movie that’s pretty memorable. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca (the big furry creature later referred to as a “giant carpet”) have just rescued Princess Leia from jail on the Death Star.

American actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the set of “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” written and directed by Georges Lucas. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

In order to escape the Empire’s storm troopers, Han shoots a hole in a garbage chute and everyone jumps in. The three heroes have managed to escape the storm troopers, only to now be trapped in a trash compactor.

My wife is a fiction writer, and she told me once about a rule attributed to the great Russian playwright Anton Chekov: If you write that there’s a gun on the wall, eventually it has to get used.

Well, to paraphrase Chekov: If your main characters all land in a trash compactor, you know that, eventually, the walls are going to start closing in. Which is, of course, what happens. 

The walls start moving closer and closer, the characters get more and more frantic as they search for a way out.

The tension builds as we worry that this is it. With just seconds remaining, Luke manages to contact the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO, who can stop the hydraulic mechanism that’s pushing the walls together.

Just in the nick of time, the robots come to the rescue. Our heroes, and the fate of freedom-loving people across the galaxy, are saved. Whew.

This scene is on my mind because we’re in the season of preparation for Passover.

Yes, it’s a scene about liberation — Han and Luke are springing Princess Leia from a cell; and the rebels, like the ancient Israelites, are, more generally, trying to become liberated from a big, powerful Empire (the Galactic Empire in this case, the Egyptian Empire in the case of Passover). 

But I think this scene, of the walls closing in, gets to the very heart of the Passover story. Why? Because in Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which literally means “the place of narrowness” or “the place of constriction.”

Egypt was a place where the lives of our ancestors were pressed — taskmasters tried to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of them; they weren’t given any rest; there was no expansiveness in their lives. 

As the conditions of oppression became more and more severe, those walls pushed closer and closer together.

Pharaoh — the Emperor — gradually increased the people’s burdens. He ordered the people to make bricks without straw — an impossible task. Eventually, he came after children, babies — so that the Israelites would feel an impossible burden of pressure, lose hope, and get smushed in the trash compactor of a life of slavery.

The miracle of Passover is that, despite all his power, Pharaoh didn’t succeed — that the Israelites tapped into a far greater power: a power of expansiveness, a power of imagination, a power of freedom. 

On previous episodes, I’ve talked about the idea that’s frequently taught among the rabbis of the Hasidic tradition: that the Exodus from Egypt isn’t only an historical event that happened thousands of years ago, but is actually something that happens every day, every hour, every moment.

At any given time, we can feel the walls closing in. We can feel tightness. We can feel constriction. In those moments, we’re being pulled into Mitzrayim–Egypt, the place of narrowness.

But the good news is, we can respond to those sensations with something even more powerful: expansiveness, mindfulness, wisdom, peace. That is the true and lasting meaning of Passover.

The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that in every generation, we are supposed to see ourselves as if we personally had left Egypt.

That’s actually the main point of Seder night. So here is a meditation practice you can use to help you sense that — either at the Seder or in these days leading up to it, or really anytime.

Begin by assuming a meditation posture. Dignified, upright. Allowing air to flow.

If it’s comfortable for you, allow your gaze to soften or gently close your eyes.

Take a few good, deep breaths. Try to bring some relaxation to your body with each exhalation. 

If there are any places in your body that you’re carrying tension, see if you can bring some tenderness to them. 

Allow yourself to be supported in your seat. Feel the way the earth is rising up to meet your feet, the way your body’s weight is carried and connected to the ground.

Now allow your awareness to center on your breath. Notice when you’re breathing in. And out. Do that for a few cycles. Just try to pay attention to the breath.

And now, if it’s good for you, I’m going to invite you to explore your inner landscape and see if there’s a sensation of constriction you can tap into. It doesn’t have to be something big–maybe it’s when you think about something at work. Or a relationship with someone you know. Or the general state of the world. 

You probably have something that leads you to a place that’s a bit narrower. Allow those feelings in. Don’t push them away. 

You might even just name the sensation: “Oh, constriction is here. Narrowness is here. Mitzrayim is here. Egypt is here.”

You might notice your breathing becoming a little shallower, or a feeling of tension or anxiety in your body. All totally normal. 

And if it’s too much for you, you can always step out. Really. You have freedom here.

Now, see if you can gently bring your awareness back to your breathing.

See if you can notice the rhythm of the inhalation and exhalation, the kind of wave that happens in your torso, the air coming in your nostrils and out your mouth. 

See if you can bring a little more calm and expansiveness to it. 

What you’re doing right now is leaving Egypt — leaving the narrowness, leaving the constriction. 

It may come back — but right here, right now, you are tapping into a power even greater than Pharaoh. You’re tapping into the power that liberated your ancestors from Mitzrayim. It’s a power that’s available to us all the time, in every moment, through a practice like this. 

If you want, you can pause the show right here if you’d like to keep on practicing longer. When you’re ready, open your eyes if they’ve been closed. 

And anytime you feel that narrowness and constriction arising–anytime you feel like you’re in that trash compactor — you can tap into this power. You can leave Egypt. We all can.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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