October 31, 2020 |


I occasionally have trouble starting and stopping. After each class that I give, I add my notes, handouts and research to a pile in my living room, which precipitously begins to grow. I look at it every time I walk by (afraid that it will one day devour the room) and think to myself that I need to spend some time putting it all away in the filing cabinet where - hopefully! - one day I will be able to find it when I need it. But I'm never in the mood to roll up my sleeves and get to work on it. Finally, after 6 months (ok, a year), I work up the gusto and start to put it all away. But now I'm stuck. I can't stop! Though I am exhausted and have lost the desire to catalog, I obsessively need to continue to try to finish the job. Sometimes, I win; sometimes I pass out on my clutter and then stuff the remainder back into the pile. Where it starts to grow again...

Sometimes, it's Monday morning and I can't get in the mood to do the work I need to do, so I take care of little items, return a few emails, chit-chat in the office. I'm sure you can relate. Fast forward to Thursday and I am totally in the shvung, productive and immersed in a million projects. But then I can't tear myself away to go home. Stuck! Sometimes, Shira and I start watching old episodes of The West Wing on DVD. We watch one or two, but now we can't stop! It's past midnight and we can't stop until we finish the DVD, muttering about how foolish we are because our children are still going to wake us at 6:00 and don't care that we went to bed late....

It is part of human nature to get involved in something and then be unable to break free. It is not only a lack of self-control in the moment, but also a question of long-term habits. We carefully cultivate good habits and hope they stick, but it takes work to get into a good habit - say, waking up early enough to prepare and eat a nutritional breakfast - and easy as pie to fall into a bad one, having a midnight snack once and then bingeing your heart out for the next week in the middle of the night. Our worst habits we wash-rinse-repeat over and over.

Even though it's not physics, it is still true that objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Our routines and habits take on a life of their own and we settle into them complacently. Occasionally, some jarring and negative experience shakes us out of our dogmatic slumbers and reminds us that we have gone on autopilot. You look in the mirror and realize that all those midnight snacks are still there to haunt you. Your grandmother's birthday pops up on your Outlook reminders and then you realize that you haven't called her in 2 months.

When we realize that we have a habit that we haven't meant to adopt, but have just sort of fallen into, there's a certain feeling of estrangement, as if we don't recognize ourselves. I never meant to be the kind of person who goes out drinking every night of the week! When did that happen!? I never meant to fall out of touch with all my old college friends. When did that happen!? Change occurs to us - sometimes without us noticing - and then we have to re-evaluate who we are and where we are going. There is a constant process of re-evaluation, in the words of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the fathers): "Know from where you come, to where you are going and before Whom you will in the end present your case and accounting." (Avot 3:1)

There is a verse in this week's Torah portion that shows that this can not only happen to an individual, trying to make their way through the obstacle course of life, but to an entire people as well. When the family of Jacob descends to Egypt (to get relief from famine), they do not know that the enslavement of the Jewish people has begun to unfold; they think that they are being hosted temporarily (a few years, max) by Joseph until conditions in their homeland of Canaan improve. However, once they move in, a new reality emerges, as evidenced by this verse, the very last verse in our Torah portion:

"And Israel[1] dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they established holdings there and they were fruitful and increased greatly." (Gen 47:27)

Note that the verse says they "settled" there, which connotes a level of permanence. Even worse, they acquired "holdings", which is a sure sign that they had settled in for the long haul. Writes the famous Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Lunschitz, 16th century):

"This whole verse is an indictment of the children of Israel, for God had decreed upon them that they would be strangers and they sought to be citizens...the verse indicts them for their "settling", that they sought holdings in a land that was [supposed to be] "not their own." However, this is not what they said to Pharaoh: "to reside temporarily in the land we have come" (Gen 47:4). This teaches us that in the beginning they did not mean to become immersed there but to reside there temporarily like a tenant and then they changed their plan and became so immersed that they did not want to leave Egypt and God was forced to take them out with a strong hand..."

The Jewish people got "stuck" in Egypt. They stepped in the quicksand and grew accustomed to their little Goshen homestead. It wasn't that things were better in the land of Goshen than in Canaan, they just got used to it. In fact, even after being enslaved to Pharaoh and forced into humiliating and hard labor, even after being subjugated and vivisected by the cruel Pharaoh, they STILL preferred to stay in Egypt rather than be redeemed and follow God out into the desert.[2] They were like a stone sunk to the bottom of the well, an object at rest and staying at rest. They were like me, preferring to have clutter take over the living room than face the daunting task of dealing with it. God had to strong-arm them to reach for their own freedom! In Jewish thought, Mitzrayim (Egypt) is literally "the narrow place"[3] the prototype of any place we get stuck in.

Are we really so different than these hapless Jews? We also have our little homesteads and holdings in America, we run on our little hamster-wheels from home to work and back again, we get used to whatever we are used to, our routines, our Tivos, our comfort foods, our fears of change. In the words of U2: we're "stuck in a moment, and you can't get out of it."

But we can. If there's one thing Judaism teaches us, it's that every corner we paint ourselves into - even the abyss of ancient Egypt - has its moment of redemption. Every Jewish prayer service includes a final blessing for redemption, for getting unstuck from "the narrow places." We don't need to stay stuck! If we remind ourselves every day that redemption and change are possible, we can live lives that are centered around our most cherished principles and values, not around our most frequent and thoughtless habits. Shabbat shalom!


[1] This may be the first reference to the Jewish people as "Israel"

[2] There is other evidence for this in the book of Exodus, that God's strong hand was not just for the Egyptians, but for the Jews as well, who needed to be shaken out of their lethargy.

[3] "min ha-metzar (like Mitzrayim) karati yah", from the narrow place, I called out to God.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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