Shovavim — which stands for the first letters of the parashi- yos Shemos through Mishpatim — is a time of calling for teshuvah, as the pasuk says, “Shuvu, banim shovavim — Re- turn, wayward children!” (Yirmeyahu 3:22). This period cov- ers the servitude of Egypt and the subsequent redemption. Below, we bring a nice quote from Rabbi Twerski’s daily tips, which can help us understand why this period is so “mesu- gal” and important for teshuvah.
I am your God Who has delivered you from the land of Egypt” (Bamidbar 15:41).
This verse is recited twice daily, because the deliverance from Egypt was more than a historic event. It was a deliverance from a state of enslavement, and this deliverance should repeat itself daily in everyone’s life.
No enslavement and no tyranny are as ruthless and as de- manding as slavery to physical desires and passions. Someone who is unable to resist a craving, and who must, like a brute beast, do whatever the body demands, is more profoundly enslaved than someone subject to a human tyrant. Addicted people are an extreme example of those who have become slaves to their bodies.
Dignity comes from freedom, in the capacity to make free choices, and hence, in our ability to refuse to submit to physical desires when our judgment indicates that doing so is wrong. Freedom from domination by the body is the first step toward spiritual growth.
The Season of Teshuvah: Before and After
In our tefillah, we say, “Remove Satan [the yetzer hara] from before us and after us.” The Talmud says, “A person’s yetzer hara renews itself each day and seeks to destroy him” (Kiddushin 30a). The yetzer hara has only one goal: to crush and destroy a person. It will resort to any technique to do so. It may begin by enticing a person to engage in self-destructive behavior. If it succeeds in doing so, it will then say, “Look how degenerate you are. Look at the terrible things you have done.” That is why we ask Hashem’s help to remove the yetzer hara from before us, not to tempt us to sin, and after us, not to depress us because we yielded to his wiles.
In the season of teshuvah, we must remember the words of the Rambam: Whereas a person who sins is despised by Hashem, once he changes his ways and does sincere teshuvah, he is dear and beloved to Hashem. The yetzer hara attacks this vigorously and wants a person’s past to haunt him the rest of his life. We should be happy that we have the mitzvah of teshuvah and not allow the yetzer hara to crush and depress us.
It is a mistake to be preoccupied by the past. When David HaMelech said, “My sin is before me always” (Tehillim 51:8), he did not mean that he ruminated on his sin. The Kotzker Rebbe said, “A sin is like mud. Whichever way you handle it, you will get soiled.” With teshuvah, the sin is erased “like a fog.” When a fog clears, no trace of it remains. What David HaMelech meant was, “Inasmuch as I sinned, I must remember that I have this vulnerability, and I must keep my guard up.”
Mitzvos should be performed with simchah, and the mitzvah of teshuvah is no exception.
A Chanukah Tikkun
Now that it is Chanukah, there is a tikkun: After lighting the Chanukah candles, one should look at the lights and meditate, “Haneiros hallalu kodesh heim — These lights are holy.” The sefarim say that they represent the original light of Creation. Concentrating on the kedushah of the Chanukah lights helps prevent misuse of one’s eyes. Some people meditate on the Chanukah lights for the full half hour that is the minimum time the candles should burn.
Zeman Cheiruseinu: An Independence Day ICelebration?
I learned much from working with an addicted population.
I know how you celebrate an Independence Day. Parades, picnics, hot dogs, patriotic speeches, and fireworks — that’s it. Whoever heard of an Independence Day that lasts a week and for which you must prepare weeks in advance, cleaning the house and sterilizing the kitchen as if it were an operating room?
That’s a bit of an overkill for an Independence Day, isn’t it?
Oh, well. Jews like to do things differently. But then, every Friday night we say in Kiddush that Shabbos is in commemora- tion of our deliverance from Egypt. We don’t invoke July 4 every week!
But we’re not finished yet. Tefillin and tzitzis are in commem- oration of our deliverance from Egypt. Now it’s a daily thing! In fact, many other mitzvos are in commemoration of our deliv- erance from Egypt. We must concede that as an Independence Day celebration, this is a bit much.
I came to the realization of what zeman cheiruseinu is all about when a young man who was recovering from years of heavy drug addiction attended his father’s Seder. When his father began reciting the Haggadah, “Avadim hayinu,” we were slaves to Pharaoh, the son interrupted him. “Abba,” he said, “can you truthfully say that you yourself were a slave? I can tell you what it means to be a slave. All those years that I was on drugs, I was enslaved by drugs. I had no freedom. I did things that I never thought I was capable of doing, but I had no choice. The drugs demanded it, and I had to do it. Today I am a free person.”
When the young man related this to me, Pesach suddenly took on an entirely new meaning. Yes, we can be slaves to a tyrannical ruler. But we can also be slaves to drugs, to alcohol, to cigarettes, to food, to immorality, or to gambling. Any time we lose control of our behavior, we are slaves. If we are not in control of our anger, we are slaves to anger. People who cannot detach themselves from the office are slaves to it. A person can be a slave to making money or to pursuing acclaim. These are enslavements that are no less ruthless than being slaves to Pharaoh. We may surrender our precious freedom and allow our drives and impulses to exercise a tyrannical rule over us.
It is now clear what zeman cheiruseinu is all about. It is much more than political independence, and we can see why we are reminded of this not only during the week of Pesach, but every Friday night and even multiple times during each day. We are at all times at risk of surrendering our precious independence and allowing ourselves to become enslaved.
Make no mistake. A slave cannot exercise proper judgment and has no free choice. A person who wants to live and knows that cigarettes can kill him but is unable to stop smoking is a slave, and this is true of many behaviors that we may not consider addictions. Our thinking becomes distorted, as I ex- plained in my book Addictive Thinking, and we rationalize our self-destructive behavior.
The young man’s comment to his father’s reading of the Haggadah stimulated me to write a commentary, the Haggadah From Bondage to Freedom, in which I pointed out that far from being a narrative of an historical event, the Haggadah is a text for identifying our addictive behaviors and a guideline on how to break loose from these enslavements and be free people.
Animals are not free. They cannot make a choice between right and wrong. They must do what their body desires. The uniqueness of man is that we are free to choose how to act. “Give me liberty or give me death” is more than a patriotic declaration. To the degree that we lose our freedom to choose, an element of our humanity dies.
The teaching of Pesach is to cherish freedom and not to sub- mit to tyranny, even to the tyranny within ourselves.