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ב"ה

Stockholm Syndrome Version Aleph

Wednesday, 27 January, 2010 - 2:00 pm

A two-year-old scared his family one summer by disappearing during their lakeside vacation. More than a dozen relatives searched the forest and shoreline, and everyone was relieved when they found little Matthew playing calmly in the woods.

"Listen to me, Matthew," his mother said sharply. "From now on when you want to go someplace, you tell Mommy first, okay?"

Matthew thought about that for a moment and said, "Okay. Disney World."

***

Scanning the flight plan of the Jewish people heading from Egypt to Israel, it would seem that somebody was snoozing that day at air traffic control. The journey they took reminds me of the route I was once forced to take in Zambia when the street I was traveling on chanced upon a river. I could see the road continue on the other side, but a bridge was not to be found. It’s doubtful if even a GPS device would have been able to help on that one. Over a hundred winding kilometers later, I was back on track.

But a closer review reveals that their itinerary was purposefully circuitous.  

In the opening words of this week’s Parsha, Beshalach, the Torah recounts (Shemot/Exodus 13:17): “It came to pass when Pharaoh sent  the people away, that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.”

Return to Egypt?!

Well, history proved G-d right (doesn’t it always?). After G-d led them in a roundabout route, they still later declared, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:4). Certainly G-d had grounds for lessening the appeal to retrace their steps. Hence the dizzying course.

But the question remains. Why would the Jewish people consider returning to the torture chambers of Egypt? What could possibly cause them to long for the land of their suffering?

The first few words of the verse may crack the code. Rather than, “When the children of Israel left Egypt,” the Torah states, “It came to pass when Pharaoh sent the people away.”  Placing the responsibility for their departure on Pharaoh not-so-subtly suggests that there were plenty of Jews who were not so eager to leave. They were driven out by Pharaoh, who was fed up with the plagues and trouble that the Jews’ presence was causing.

***

Much has been written about the irony of the 1973 hostages of an armed bank robbery in Stockholm who, upon release, took up the defense of their captors. Psychologists continue to study the documented phenomenon, ever since named the Stockholm Syndrome.  From Patty Hearst’s defense to victims of domestic abuse, the paradox persists.

But its mystical equivalent didn’t start in Sweden a few decades ago. A few millennia ago some Jews were suffering from a spiritual version of Stockholm Syndrome. 

True, they had suffered immensely at the hands of Pharaoh. But, they argued, after the ten plagues his heart has certainly softened. Surely, he will now allow us to live in peace. They embraced the notion of reuniting with their oppressor, under the wishful impression that life would be better.

***

In the eyes of the mystics, Egypt is not only a geographic location. Nor is it simply a historic superpower. Rather, Egypt (Mitzrayim in Hebrew) represents limitation (Meitzarim in Hebrew). Thus the statement of the Talmud that in every generation one should imagine oneself leaving Egypt can also read: one must constantly liberate oneself from personal constraints.

Pharaoh’s push to enslave the people is the animal within seeking to limit and hinder our spiritual growth. It’s the voice that mocks the traditions we cherish. We must continuously free ourselves of his clutches, one mitzvah at a time.

And as we remove one shackle after another, let us not make the same mistake as our ancestors. Let’s perceive the internal Pharaoh for the menace that he is and put an end to the abusive romance.

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