In an ironic twist of hashgachah, below is the assignment my lecturer required for “Individual Intervention” class. Maybe I’ll update later with the comments and grade he gives…
ואתכם לקח ד’ ויוצא אתכם מכור הברזל ממצרים
דברים (ד’, כ’)
And God took you all, and led you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt. Deuteronomy (4, 20)
Exile with Purpose in Itself
Rashi on this verse explains that the iron furnace serves to purify iron of its impurities. The message of this verse is that the slavery in Egypt was not just bondage, it served to rectify negative aspects the Jewish people had that could impair them in their mission in receiving the Torah and doing God’s will. The exile to Egypt was not happenstance, or a mere punishment – it was an ends in itself that had a purpose and direction.
Along these lines, the Michtav Me’Eliyahu explains that the Jewish people needed to be able to experience what it is to have a master, to be completely beholden to a higher authority. Only in this way would they later be able to accept and follow the Torah – instructions given by God.
This idea would seem in contradiction with the Mishna in Mesechet Avot:
“חָרות על הלוחות” – “אל תקרא ‘חרות’ אלא חירות, שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה, שכל מי שעוסק בתורה, הרי זה מתעלה.”
Engraved on the tablets…” Do not read the verse “engraved,” rather “freedom.” For there is no free man besides he who is involved with Torah study, for anyone who is involved with Torah, behold he is exalted.
The final goal of leaving Egypt was to receive the Torah, to give us true freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom to be in line with one’s higher self. The freedom to express our love and thanks for our Creator with the Mitvahs. How then is learning subservience to a master, which we have noted was a goal of the exile, in line with ultimate outcome, the exodus, and becoming free?
Free Self, Enslaved Self
In his famous essay “Ego Distortion in Terms of Real and False Self,” Winnicott elaborates on the nature and source of a person’s false self, as opposed to his real self. He explains that as a child we have natural, spontaneous, body-centered and creative expressions of self – actions that come from the True self. When we see that others don’t approve of, or respond to these self-expressions, we develop other ways of acting which are more in line with the expectations of our caretakers and people in our environment.
Winnicott describes varying levels of identification of Self with False Self, from extreme pathology to healthy range. In the case of the most pathological, the False Self totally takes over the person, and he is just a reflection of what others want him to be – a type of slave to his environment. On the other end of the spectrum, as a healthy reaction, this False Self enables a person to interact with others effectively, and thus helps him achieve expression of his True self, similar to how the healthy ego can regulate and manage its environment in order to fulfill id needs in Freud’s structural model. (Although in Freud’s model the ego always interacts with reality to balance id and superego needs with reality. Here, the False self only takes on a similar function in full health.)
This idea of Winnicott sheds light on our dilemma above. In Winnicott’s model the False Self and the True Self do not have to be at odds, it is possible for the False Self to help facilitate the True Self’s meaningful, creative expression. The outside mandated reactions of the False self instead of enslavement, can serve to facilitate the expression of the True self… Bondage thus serving freedom.
A Synthesis of Ideas, Above and Below, Perspective and True Freedom
In his essay Winnicott does not differentiate between the True self’s aspects of spontaneous spirituality and connection to divine, vs. spontaneous creative desire for physical and earthly pleasures. The True self is defined as essentially the self of creative and spontaneous expression – simply that. He mentions the physical aspect, but not to the exclusion of other aspects. (Perhaps in another article he does make a dichotomy, I’m not aware of this.)
However, In the Torah model there is a clear differentiation. The yetzer hara is not considered the true essence of the person, and is not ultimately the True self. To the Torah perspective, although it is internal, the yetzer hara represents a type of outside influence, outside to the True self of the soul. So it would be more accurate to say (or at least a useful model for understanding the Mishnah) that the yetzer hara positively reinforces earthly physicality and disconnection to spirit with its promises of pleasure and pain, just as a child’s first caretaker may respond in different ways (good enough) to allow for true self responses, or to generate false self (not good enough). From the Torah perspective, the yetzer hara functions as an outside influence that can lead to creation of the false self, to varying levels of health.
The Mishnah doesn’t mean that one who studies Torah is “exalted,” מתעלה should be translated “lifts himself up.” With the Torah, we are able to have the perspective we need to see that the yetzer hara and earthly connections are not who we really are. We see that we can form a way of reacting and being, a healthy false self, that helps us to channel our earthly aspects, and positively interact with the world in a way that will help us express our highest true self, express our souls by bringing spirituality into this world. It is thus possible to make the yetzer hara not only “good-enough” but very good, tov meod!
This can only be done with the proper perspective of the Torah, and it is a constant job, a constant occuptation, requiring us to learn perspective from the Torah, but also to have discipline and to serve Hashem, to stick to a plan, so that the influence of our earthly selves does not become our master, and we do not become a slave to our false self, the over identification with the influence of the yetzer hara. Thus serving a higher ideal is the means that facilitates our higher expression.