One of the most common arguments in modern psychology is regarding the nature of the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Some argue that thoughts (e.g. “I can’t do this”) lead to feelings (sadness, worry), which in turn dictate how we behave (giving up, avoiding the difficult task). Others claim that feelings (e.g. anxiety, panic) lead to thoughts (“what’s happening?” or “something is wrong with me!”), which in turn lead to behaviors (going to the doctor, seeking reassurance from friends that you’re ok). Still others insist that our actions affect how we think and feel. If I sit in my room alone all day, I am likely to feel lonely and sad, and to have thoughts like “my life is boring” or “I have no friends.” If I go out and spend time with my friends or family, I might feel excited, or content, and have thoughts such as, “my friends are great” or “my life is full.”
On the whole, one can confidently assume that there is a kernel of truth in all three of these approaches. Emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are closely linked and complexly intertwined, constantly interacting in our daily lives. Increasing our awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can help us to harness these powerful forces to improve our functioning. Of course, as with most things in Torah Judaism, there is a time to focus on invoking feelings, a time to focus on noticing and changing thoughts, and a time to focus on and implement specific behaviors. Let us take a closer look at Seder night and understand which of these important forces is at play in our experience.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 380) notes an obscure and peculiar law pertaining to the Karban Pesach, arguably the first and most essential element of the first ever Pesach Seder in Egypt, and still commemorated at the Seder today through the Zroah on the Seder plate. The Mitzvah (Shmos 12:46) is that one is forbidden to break the bones of the Karban Pesach (i.e. to chomp on the bones to eat the marrow, or for flavor). What is the meaning of this strange law? The Sefer HaChinuch explains something quite psychologically profound: it is forbidden to break the bones of the Karban Pesach because this is an action that poor people, people without means, might do, for they are in need of sustenance and must therefore take all the nourishment they can from their meals. The Jewish people on Pesach, however, are meant to feel like princes, like wealthy kings, free people unencumbered by concerns of poverty or lack. We are commanded not to break the bones of the Karban Pesach because “acharei ha’peulos nimshachim ha’levavos;” one’s actions affect or dictate one’s emotional experience.
The Jews in Egypt were not yet free; they were still in Pharaoh’s clutches as they sat and ate the Karban Pesach for the first time. And yet, they were commanded to eat and act like free men, like princes and kings! Leaning, drinking wine, eating meat – these are all actions of wealthy, free men, not slaves! And this is precisely the point that God wanted to drive home through the Mitzvos of Karban Pesach, and subsequently, the whole Seder night. It is true that the Jews who sat and ate that first Karban Pesach were not yet free; but how do you become free if you continue to act as though you are a slave? The Sefer HaChinuch brilliantly and correctly posits that our actions, the way we behave, the way we carry ourselves, have a profound impact on how we feel, and on what we think of ourselves. If I am breaking the bones of the Karban Pesach, I am behaving like a slave, not a free man. If I am to shift my mindset, to begin to think of myself as free, I must act as if I am already free. By acting as if I am free, I change myself, my feelings, my thoughts about myself, and I become ready for and worthy of freedom.
Every element of Seder night is meant to help us fulfill that famous dictate of the Gemara (Pesachim 118b), “in every generation man is obligated to see himself as though he came out of Egypt.” Here I am, living in America in 2019, expected to be able to feel, through the Seder, as though I myself was taken out of Mitzrayim. How is this possible?! Furthermore, while it may not be so difficult to feel that feeling of freedom in today’s world, recall that this Mitzvah applied in every generation! Through pogroms and inquisitions, in Nazi death camps, on IDF bases on the brink of war, this dictum still applied: see yourself as though you are already free, already saved, already experiencing the salvation for which you are hoping and praying; do this by acting as if it has already happened. The Seder is a time where we capitalize on our behaviors to change our subsequent feelings and thoughts. If I am singing, rejoicing, drinking wine, eating like a king, then I will feel elated, and free, and I can begin to think of myself not as a slave, but as a free person, and through those actions I ready myself for salvation.
As we have likely heard in relation to Pesach, every one of us has experienced, is experiencing, or will likely experience a personal Egypt. The word “Mitzrayim” has within it the root word “meitzar,” which means narrow. The idea of leaving Egypt is about freeing ourselves from those narrow places; it is about asking myself, to what am I a slave? Is it my perfectionism and my expectations of myself, or am I a slave to the expectations or desires of others? Am I tied to my phone, my technology, or my job? Am I beholden to my own emotions? Do sadness, anxiety, or anger hijack me and cause me to act in ways that I later regret? Am I held back by fear, of the unknown, or of commitment? What is enslaving me and keeping me locked in this narrow, uncomfortable place in my life? Seder night is about seeing myself as if I have already been rescued from that narrow place. What would it look like if I were to no longer be a slave to those things, if I were to be in that wide open world of hope and possibility that right now seems so far away, so unattainable?
Consider where you are now, in what ways your life is narrow, and then imagine what it would look like if your life opened up in all the ways for which you are hoping and praying. What are you doing differently? How are you speaking, acting, thinking? What do your relationships look like? How is your time allotted? Imagine these differences, and then, do as the Sefer HaChinuch (and modern-day cognitive behavior therapy) recommends: act as if those changes have already occurred. The Jews in Mitzrayim acted free before they were actually freed, because in order to live the lives we are building we must think of ourselves as worthy of that life, we must feel comfortable in those new circumstances, and we do this by changing how we act, the choices we make, the things we say, and how we say them. On Seder night, consider your Mitzrayim, and see yourself as though you have already gotten out. Let us embody this crucial lesson of acting as if we are where we want to be, and with God’s help, we will get there, by showing Him that we are ready.