When danger looms, people orient in different ways. Some carry on with business as usual. Some jolt into fight-flight. Some just breathe. Some pray. Some face the monster. Some find grace in the midst of terror and sing with joy.
The truth is that no one knows the best path forward. Depending on the circumstances, each one of these orientations might be skillful. And what is skillful shifts over time, often through a jagged process with a life of its own.
Yet the urgency to respond can lead us to narrow places. Under pressure, we tend to insist on one “correct” orientation, rejecting all other alternatives. This narrowing can breed judgement and conflict that themselves add more danger to the crisis. It also squanders the opportunity to reveal the collective healing wisdom hidden within our differences.
As Corona and other threats press in upon us this Passover season, the Exodus story can help reframe the conflicts that divide us as keys for moving through the narrows and toward a more spacious horizon.
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Exodus presents six different orientations to מצריים Mitzra’im—the Hebrew word for Egypt. Mitzra’im of Exodus isn’t a country that exists on a modern day map; it’s a mythical landscape symbolizing ultimate constriction. Tzar mean narrow. Meitzarim are contractions, as in the contractions of childbirth. Mitzra’im is the thing that weighs most heavily on us, the pit that is closing in around us, the plague from which we want to break free.
The first orientation—symbolized by Moses growing up in Pharaoh’s court—is denial. (ויגדל Va-yigdal. Exodus 2:21.) Sometimes denial is not only reasonable, it’s necessary for survival. Sometimes we are too young, weak, or scared to do anything else. We pretend away the darkness and the fragility of our reality because the alternative feels like having no skin.
The second orientation—symbolized by Moses killing the taskmaster, then fleeing to Midian—is fight-flight. (ויך-ויברח Va-yach-Va-yivrach. Exodus 2:12; 2:15.) Sometimes, after prolonged denial, we snap. We lash out. We rage. When violence erupts in this impulsive way it is often coupled by panic. Fight comes along with flight because violence tends to attract more violence.
The third orientation—symbolized by Moses’ time in Midian where he “sits at the well”—is a shift from doing to being. (וישב Va-yeshev. Exodus 2:16.) When the old story that has given shape to our lives falls apart, when we haven’t yet caught a glimpse of a new story that might take its place, the only honest thing to do is to abide in the space between stories.
Surrendering to the truth of not knowing the answer is essential here, though it can be painful. Not knowing is a form of self-erasure—the stripping away of one’s known world, becoming a stranger in another. In Midian, Moses has a child whom he names Stranger (גרשום Gershom), “for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Exodus 2:22.
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The first three orientations—denial, fight-flight, and being—correspond to parts of the story where Moses barely speaks. Like the Israelites, he is trapped in slave consciousness. The shift from silence to speech begins with a narrative interlude. We leave Moses in Midian for news from Mitzra’im:
“The Sons of Israel groaned from the work. They cried out. Their desperate cries rose up. And God heard their wails.” Exodus 2:23-24.
This verse uses four different words for crying—the crying of the collective pain body. When we stop pretending that everything is okay, when we give up the fight to “man up,” when we step back from the old, broken story, shed our armor, and just sit—often what wells up is grief. Listening to grief can open the way to a new relationship with trauma. In the raw aftermath of catharsis, new visions can appear.
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The fourth orientation—symbolized by the burning bush—is receiving revelation. (וירא Va-ye’ra. Exodus 3:2.) Sometimes out of the quietude of just being, inspiration strikes. We hear a voice that confronts us with the unresolved conflicts we left behind. We catch a glimpse of the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. We sense that we might, after all, have the power to name the dream out loud.
But grand dreams often come with grave doubts. We don’t want to acknowledge our most earnest, seemingly naïve desires; we don’t believe that success is possible.
Sometimes doubt wins. Sometimes faith sets the course. Sometimes the conflict between the two dominates our inner landscape—a fire that burns but doesn’t consume.
The fifth orientation—symbolized by Moses’ impossible request: “let my people go”—is loving speech. The call to return comes in a surprising form. “Come,” says the voice from the burning bush. “Come to Pharaoh.” (בא Bo. Exodus 10:1.) Even Pharaoh has a divine essence; even Pharaoh has a heart. Come and speak to Pharaoh’s heart.
You, Moses, know that his answer is going to be “no.” It’s going to be painful. Still, try to imagine that against all odds, the tide can turn. You have to believe this to do what needs to be done—to ask ten times, in ten different ways.
The sixth orientation—symbolized by the song the Israelites sing as they cross through the sea—is cultivating miracle consciousness. (ויהי Va-yehi. Exodus 15: 2.)
עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישועה
Ozi v’zimrat Ya, va’yehi li l’yeshua.
My personal power, and the power of inspired song—these two forces, in combination, will get me through.
Sometimes we wake up from the nightmare. We see a promised land on the horizon. We know that somehow, under the surface, amid the chaos and the pain, a new, more beautiful world is being born. We feel it in our bellies—like water breaking, like a world full of newborn babies crying out with a new song. Zimrat Ya. A song of Interbeing.
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In the Exodus story, the six orientations appear as a linear process. Yet we who are living in the meitzar, in the narrow place, know that the order is rarely linear. We move in and out of different modes, continually adjusting and readjusting. We speak up. We stutter. We go silent. We speak again. Progress is slow; sometimes it’s invisible.
Exodus can help us tune in and ask: which part of the story am I called to stand in today? Do I have the confidence to stand in that story without judging myself? Do I have the humility to respect people who are standing in another story? Can I trust that we are all participating in a collective liberation process that no one understands? Can I meet whatever conflicts emerge with curiosity for the collective wisdom hidden within?
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recalls: “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
Calm, loving action is something we can strive for, but other responses will also arise. Panic will arise. Grief will arise. People are going to fall apart. These too can play a role in the collective healing process. We need to take turns holding and being held, leading and being led, listening and being listened to.
At this year’s Seder, after we read “All who are hungry, come and eat” let’s add: “All who are silent, come and speak.”
Even Moses lived a chapter of his life in denial. Even Moses lost control and lashed out. Even Moses ran away from his problems before he saw the light, spoke truth to power, and led his people out of bondage.
Every one of these orientations is part of the alchemy of Yetziyat Mitzra’im. May they all have a place at our table, and may they all ring from our windows when we open them and sing.