The first three Torah portions of Sefer Sh'mot (the Book of Exodus) are the three portions that invite us to exist in Mitzrayim (Egypt), and it is here that I would invite us to dwell one more moment, despite our natural eagerness to leave the place of our degradation and enslavement.
These three portions are bracketed with the word "Mitzrayim." Let me explain: One of the best things that I remember learning in high school is what I call 'bracketed reading'. (This is not a criticism of my teachers but rather a confession as to the frequency and quality of my presence in the classroom...). 'Bracketed reading' means, for example, reading the first and last lines of a poem and trying to encompass the totality of the poem through those two lines alone. I have learned to read differently because of this technique - not only to look at the center of the plot, but also what is holding the plot together.
There is an extreme form of this method that I've developed and that is to look at the last words of a corpus of writing and ask, 'Why has the author left us here / lead us to here?' If you do this with exercise when looking at the five chumashim you will find that God leaves us exactly where we need to be at that moment:
The last two words of Breishit / Genesis are "ba'aron b'Mitzrayim / in a coffin in Egypt." The entire book of B'reishit, from creation through the establishment of the household of our patriarchs and matriarchs is to lead us to the most constricted, limited, confined place - a coffin in Egypt.
The last two words of Sh'mot / Exodus is "b'chol mas'e'hem / on all of their journeys". The book of Sh'mot constitutes our journey out of Mitzrayim and toward establishing our identity as we journey through the dessert.
The book of Vayikra / Leviticus ends with "b'har Sinai / at Mount Sinai." The book of Vayikra teaches us the content of our covenant with God, what standing at Mount Sinai really meant.
The book of Bamidbar / Numbers concludes with "Yarden Yericho / Jordan Jericho" - this book brings us to the border of the Land of Israel. We are not there yet, but we have almost made it, we can see it from afar.
And the last book in the chumash brings us to "kol Yisrael / all of Israel" - it is here that we have all come together, finally united.
When we return specifically to our Torah portion, to "Bo", it will now be easier to track that the last word of our portion is "M'Mitzrayim / from Egypt," and if we look at the three opening Torah portions as a complete unit of our life in Mitzrayim we can see that it's held by the concept of "Mitzrayim". The last word of Breishit is "b'Mitzrayim," the last word of our Torah portion is also "m'Mitzrayim."
The Ishbitzer rebbe, Reb Mordechai Yoseph Lainer of Ishbitza (1800-1853), asks a question that many before him have posed, and many of us continue to address. "Why is it," he asks, "that we had to stay in Mitzrayim during the ten plagues? Why did we have to see it all and experience it? Why couldn't the Egyptians have been punished for enslaving us after we had already left?"
His answer is on the one hand hard for us to hear, and on the other hand so psychologically astute that we dare not turn away. The Ishbitzer teaches that not only did we live in Mitzrayim, but we were "IN" Mitzrayim. What does this mean, to be "in Mitzrayim"? 'Mitzrayim' is not only a geographical location. In the Kabalistic and Chassidic traditions it is also a state of consciousness - specifically, a state of contracted consciousness. 'Yisrael' like the letters of the words 'li rosh / my head' symbolizes expanded consciousness, awareness, expansive thinking, while 'Mitzrayim' like the letters of the words 'metzar yam / the straits of the ocean,' symbolize contracted consciousness, limited vision and comprehension. For the Ishbitzer rebbe, we were literally enveloped with a state of 'Mitzrayim', we were, so to speak, 'in a coffin in Mitzrayim' and therefore we needed to go through the plagues alongside the Egyptians. We too needed to experience the awe, fear and trepidation so that we could be cleansed from those Mitzrayim parts of ourselves.
We are often in a rush to get out of uncomfortable situations. We want to solve problems as quickly as we can so that we need not dwell on them. But it appears that bracketing our stay in Mitzrayim with the word 'Mitzrayim' functions as an invitation to actually sit in this space. It seems that the only way out of this constricted state of being is by going through it, not by circumventing it! We can't overcome limitations that we've encountered unless we are willing to own our part in the situation: to be able to name and face our pain, to be able to claim our suffering, to be able to hold our loss. It is only then, when we see ourselves in the light of our darkness that we can truly leave it behind as we walk towards new horizons. We are being asked to dwell in our pain and discomfort so that we will be able to indeed move forward. Without this process, it would appear that we will never be free from that which enslaved us - we would carry it with us, creating new Mitzrayims wherever we journeyed next. We won't be able to truly leave it behind us. We need to be able to name the emotion so that we can find a remedy to heal it.
It is with this in mind that I ask us all to sit one more moment in this discomfort, to own being a 'temporary citizen of Mitzrayim,' so that when we indeed do leave Mitzrayim we can be free. The one last piece, before willing to go back into our personal darknesses, is to also be able to name who the 'holders of light' are in our lives. In our story in the chumash we have Shifra and Puah - the midwives, we have Miriam, Bitya, Moshe and Aharon. In order to walk through this process it is imperative, as the Torah itself teaches us, to be able to identify those who hold on to our vision for us, those who see redemption and freedom on the other side, witnesses of true liberation. It is with their presence on the other side of the darkness that we are able to march through it.
This Shabbat is an opportunity to sit in our Mitzrayim one last time. In the presence of our bearers of light to own our darkness so that we will be free next week to truly exit that which has held us back for years and years in our own personal Mitzrayim!