“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this in .1963 in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. It is the sad truth about the history of oppressive nations, with one exception-Egypt. Each year at Passover we recount the Exodus story in which we say that G-d saw our suffering and took us out of Egypt. It wasn’t a revolution or uprising of the proletariat; our freedom was given to us voluntarily by our oppressors. They wanted us to leave so badly that they even gave us their gold and silver. Oppression of individuals and nations is never resolved by the bad guys having a moment of moral inspiration, it happens when the good guys demand it. The Jews in Egypt didn’t demand it but they did pray to G-d and their prayer was answered. The Jews did not overpower their oppressors, rather the Almighty allowed them to simply walk out of the most powerful and protected nation at the time.
Let us use our imagination to place ourselves back to that time. We have just left Egypt and although we are going into a desert, we have a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night to protect us and give light. In addition to these miracles, we have witnessed ten plagues as well as a powerful and fearless nation being brought to its knees. On the third day of our journey, we head in the wrong direction, at G-d’s command, so that Pharaoh will miscalculate and think we are confused and have lost our way.
And Pharaoh will say of the Jews, ‘They are “nevuchim” in the land, the wilderness has closed them in'” (Exodus 14:3). The word nevuchim is ambiguous and the classical commentators are in dispute as to its meaning. It can mean trapped (Rashi), confused (Rashbam) or completely lost, without hope and without any idea of what to do. (Ibn Ezra). In short, Pharaoh will mistakenly think the Jews are either trapped, lost, or confused and therefore he will have an opportunity to capture them. Many have noted that this word (nevuchim) has the same root as “cry” (bocheh). We cry when we are trapped, lost, or confused. It is noteworthy that Pharaoh and his nation were practically decimated by the plagues, yet they continued to live in a world of delusion by thinking that they will be able to get back their slaves.
What were the Jews at that time thinking? They were finally free, but did they think so? After the sea split and the Jews walked to safety, they were pursued by the Egyptians, all of whom drown in the sea. When they saw with their own eyes that the Egyptians had drowned, they finally felt that they were out of danger.
And on that day the Almighty saved the Israelites from the hand of Egypt. (Exodus 14:30)
It is crucial to note that according to the Torah’s text, the Jews were saved when they saw the Egyptians perish in the sea. Even though they were already liberated on the day they left Egypt, they were not really considered saved on that day because they didn’t feel secure with regard to the Egyptians.
We see from here that sometimes blatant reality is of no consequence if one does not embrace it. A person can be free but (s)he is not really considered as such unless (s)he actually feels free. A woman with a good job, wonderful and supportive friends can feel trapped and imprisoned in the life she thinks she is stuck in. She might have many options but she has trapped herself into thinking that she really has none because she has sabotaged opportunities that come her way. She, like the Jews who had recently been set free, is not free because she has created her own prison.
I know a man who had created his own, self-inflicted, penitentiary. He had a skin condition and was convinced that no woman would want to date him. He was a good man with a strong work ethic and would get serious offers from women who wanted to go out with him but he always refused because he had convinced himself that if a woman really thought about it, she would be repulsed by his condition. When I pointed out to him that his condition was not hidden, and it did not seem to be a deterrent from quality women wanting to date him he just was not able to see the reality because it was blocked by his self-inflicted prison walls. He was young and getting depressed over a situation that he felt he did not deserve and wanted to know why G-d had cast him aside and doomed him to a life of loneliness. I told him that perhaps G-d had arranged the greatest gift possible for him-to love and be loved. As long as he remained trapped and without hope and without any idea of what to do, he was doomed but if he would be willing to entertain the idea that a loving G-d created him that way for a purpose, then he would embrace who he was and not sabotage opportunities that come his way. Imagine how wonderful it would feel if a woman saw a kind, considerate, good listener and said that those traits are so stark that they overshadow any skin condition. Imagine how wonderful it would feel to be loved by someone who sees you, the person you have become, not just a sad clinical case for a dermatologist? The thing he craves so badly might be waiting for him but due to him doing and thinking things his way, he is denying himself and someone else a beautiful relationship. He has many options and the door of freedom has been open for a long time, but he doesn’t feel that freedom.
There is real oppression all over the globe but most of us are not victims of it. Much of the tyranny we face in life is self-imposed. “Freedom must be demanded by the oppressed,” applies to one’s personal life as well. Are there really no options in your life or are there options, but to exercise them will required you to come out of your comfort zone? You need to tell-i.e. demand-your internal Pharaoh that you are free, even though he and the Egyptians (i.e. negative thoughts of hopelessness and self-pity) are pursuing you.
To be truly free you must feel free and that is up to you. Anxiety about the past and fear of the future are the slave masters that will bring a person down. The greater you can master your thoughts, the greater freedom you will experience in life.
We were given our freedom thousands of years ago. Every thought of despair or hopelessness is an indication that we have forgotten who we are, where we came from, and what our potential is. It is there and free for the taking as long as we tell our inner slave master to leave us alone so that we can enjoy the life for which we were created.