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Reclaiming our free will

Jewish potentiality- Bo 5783

We have just welcomed the new month of Shevat this week, and we are still in January: the season of new (year) resolutions is on.

Yet only about 50% of people who set such resolutions actually stick with them.

Which begs the question, why is it that stopping binging on Netflix, or starting eating healthier isn’t working for so many?

This brings back to the forefront the old, existential question of free will. Are we free to make our own decisions? Do we have agency, and to what extent?

We can learn a lot about this in this week’s Parashah (Torah portion). In Parashat Bo (בא), the Meor Einayim’s commentary suggests a way to reclaim our agency.

Do you have free will?

Moses and his brother Aaron are sent by God to go see Pharaoh, and tell him to set the Israelites free.

Pharaoh isn’t eager to let go of his free workforce, and respectfully refuses. Then God sends a plague in order to convince Pharaoh.

Pharoah of course, changes his mind and agrees to set the Hebrews free, but eventually comes around and refuses to let them leave.

God sends another plague, and Pharaoh changes his mind, only to come around again once the plague is gone.

This goes on, and on, until the tenth plague, the only one that can’t be undone- the death of Egypt firstborns.

We can identify similar patterns in our own lives.

Often, when we are getting off track, life is kind enough to send us signs.

These can be friendly reminders, such as our own intuition, or other people’s feedback. If we persist, the signs can become much more dire.

Many tragedies can be traced back to an earlier honest mistake, which eventually produces another mistake, and another one, until eventually it’s too late.

Any true change demands letting go of something, making a sacrifice, but very often we are not willing to do that.

Often when we push it, when we keep ignoring the signs, refusing to sacrifice, like Pharaoh did, eventually there’s no coming back, we end up paying a much bigger price.

Our own internal Pharaoh

Pharaoh's example can be read as a metaphor for how destructive this kind of behavior can be.

Yet, when we resist and persist, it often seems like it is because we can’t find the necessary agency to do otherwise.

This can be found in the biblical tail as well, as God "closed Pharaoh's heart". As if to suggest he literally took his agency.

The Meor Einayim opens his commentary with this paradox: “how come pharaoh's choice, which should have been free, was taken from him?”

By doing so, he invites us to read the story in a Hasidic manner, and consider Pharaoh's story as our own.

Reading it as an inner journey, in which all the protagonists play the role of characters within our own psyche.

Maybe we all have an inner Pharaoh: the one within who stubbornly keeps denying the inevitable, in spite of the evidence in front of us.

The one who promises and keeps canceling, surrenders and resists again. The one who wants to keep having it their way.

Yet we know that all work of Tikkun Ha Midot (working on our personal/ethical traits) also requires surrendering, and changing.

This bags the question: can my will be stronger than my mental habits and conditioning?

Reclaiming our free will

For the Meor Einayim, the answer is yes.

There is hope, and it lies in one key Midah (quality or character trait), which can help us reclaim agency.

It is a spiritual ethos he’s been preaching for, since we opened the book of Shemot three weeks ago: Da’at (awareness).

In his commentary on Parashat Shemot, he describes Egypt as a symbolic place, of “exile of awareness”, an exile that awaits us each time we stop being mindful.

In last week’s Parasha, he suggested that our capacity to cultivate a “broader awareness” on a daily basis, was a practice that could come to the rescue in times of challenge.

This week, the Meor Einayim articulates again the connection between our own human agency, and awareness.

“Choice is a matter of awareness,” he writes. “Without awareness, the category of choice does not apply.”

The first thing we can choose, and are invited to choose every day, is to cultivate awareness.

A daily spiritual practice

When we are aware, we can choose from a place of clarity of heart, of informed intention.

This is what we learn to develop in meditation practice, and in Mussar (ethical discipline).

Through everyday spiritual practice, we cultivate our capacity to bring awareness to our unconscious patterns and desires.

Then we can learn to respond, rather than react, to what Life sends us.

Then we are moved by courage, truth and love, rather than fear and resistance.

Cultivating awareness on a day-to-day basis- aka mindfulness practice- means reclaiming our ability to choose what we say and do.

Spiritual practice teaches us both to know when to persist, like Moses, and, from the counterexample of Pharaoh, to know when to let go.

May we always be on the mindful side, knowing when to persist, and when to let go.

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