How to get the hell out of Egypt

Using the ten plagues and ten sefirot as a map out of slavery

The Exodus story resonates on a deeper level, relevant to every single one of us. The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hassidic teacher, says that the exile and redemption, Egypt and Israel, are not just historical events but deep truths that occur in every place, in every person and in every time. In Hebrew Egypt is Mitzrayim. The meaning of the word itself is layered. Mitzrayim on one hand refers to a constriction, a narrowing of something, like our minds when we are enslaved.

sefirotHow do we know if we live in slavery? And how do we know how to get out of it?

Just as there were ten plagues, Kabbalah teaches that the Universe was created through ten utterances, from ten Sefirot (from Ein Sof meaning ‘without end.) These ten Sefirot make up the anatomy of our soul. When we link the plagues to their corresponding Sefirot, not only can we identify how we might be stuck in Mitzrayim, slavery, but what the path to our own redemption is.

Plague: Blood – destructive confidence
Seifort: Malchut – Kingship

The first plague turned the River Nile into a river of blood. The Nile was the ultimate confidence of Egypt, it gave them water and life. But instead of using its waters and fertile soil for the good of people, it built a destructive confidence in the Egyptians which led to their domination and exploitation of other people.

How do we demonstrate confidence in our lives? Are we domineering, putting others down to make ourselves feel important, and only using others for what we can personally gain from them? Or do we display attributes of kingship, Malchut, nurturing, supporting, caring for the needs of others, but at the same time always remembering our position and acting with a type of confidence that makes people want to look up to us, rather than forcing them.

Plague: Frogs – cold intimacy
Sefirot: Yesod – bonding/foundation

The second plague, a swarm of frogs, symbolises the cold-blooded nature of Mitzrayim. When we are in slavery, we cannot relate to another human in a warm, mutually supportive environment. Frogs lay their eggs in cold holes in the ground. The eggs hatch and they are left on their own, with no parental protection or care. The plague of frogs symbolises the psychological state of apathy, detachment and coldness.

The opposing Sefirot is the ability to build a meaningful, emotional intimacy with another person. Creating Yesod, a true bond and foundation that isn’t characterised by indifference but genuine love, care and understanding.

Plague: Lice – unhealthy submission
Sefirot: Hod – splendour/sincerity

The spiritual dimension of lice is one of the greatest challenges in the modern world. When one thinks of oneself as a worthless creature that doesn’t matter, our life-blood is sucked out of our very souls like lice sucking our blood. It destroys our vitality and our energy. If we have no self-worth, we are in Egyptian submission, where the Israelites were made to feel as worthless as lice.

To move beyond that is to see ourselves both with splendour, as marvellous creatures capable of infinite wonders, and at the same time be sincere with ourselves. To be honest for who we are whilst appreciating and loving the wonder of who we are.

Plague: Devouring beasts – wild ambition
Sefirot: Netzach – victory

Our ambition can be an incredible gift. We have a goal; a business or a hobby or a career we want to achieve, and we work day and night to get there. But this fourth plague, wild beasts that devoured the crops of Egypt, represents this negative aspect of ambition, where we don’t care for whom we trample over or what we destroy in order to achieve our goal.

The Netzach means victory, but not the all or nothing fulfilment of our ambitions, but a complete, holistic state where we are victorious in all aspects of our lives. A state where we are the winners, not at the expense of others, but in a way that leaves no one gorged by wild beasts.

Plague: Epedemic – sly compassion
Sefirot: Tifferet – true compassion

The fifth plague was an epidemic, a plague in our sense of the word, which annihilated the Egyptian cattle. Like sly compassion, it silently spreads unnoticed, before it terribly devastates those affected.

When employs uses sly compassion, one uses another’s weaknesses for exploitative, selfish or destructive ends. One uses another’s deepest fears or darkest moments against them, in an effort to destroy them in the silent and deadly way of an epidemic.

True compassion, Tifferet, is greater than even love. Love can easily overlook flaws because love is overflowing and enveloping. The problem is that these flaws still exist and can end up destroying the love that overlooked them.

Compassion however, takes into consideration an individual’s weaknesses, their flaws, displays endless empathy and will walk with someone through their hardest moments. Even when love disappears, when lust goes, when anger or even hate appears within the space between two people; compassion binds souls together.

Plague: Boils – brutal rejection
Sefirot: Gevurah – might

The sixth plague saw the Egyptians covered in boils, painful hot blisters covered their skin. Fire is related to the emotion of rejection. To remove oneself from another thing or person, just as fire can scorch and cleanse things that need to be destroyed.

They say don’t burn your bridges, but sometimes you need to burn that thing down to stop what was chasing you, from following you into a new life. Fire can be cleansing, and with inner strength and might, Gevurah, can help us move on from pain and suffering.

But fire can be hurtful. Rejection can cause us to be cruel, unkind, bitter and hateful. Brutal rejection is that. When we become the hot, painful boils on the skin of another.

Plague: Hail – frozen love
Sefirot: Chessed – loving kindness

In the West, love has been corrupted to become a synonym for need. I need you. I need this. When we are in Mitzrayim, Egyptian slavery, love is frozen, and like hail, can be destructive. We are motivated by self-seeking desires and a need to pleasure ourselves, at the expense of others. While rain, water, is nourishing for the land, frozen hail is harsh, cold and hurtful.

True Chessed, loving kindness, is the opposite of that. It is true loving kindness for another, that is putting another above one’s own needs. Saying not what can I get from this person, but what can I give them. In slavery, this is nowhere to be found.

Plague: Locusts – inverted intelligence
Sefirot: Binah – understanding

A plague of locusts invaded Egypt as the eighth plague. The swarm consumed all the plants, leaving the earth barren and dry. The locust plague represents the corrupted mind; intelligence which has been inverted to destroy the basic moral principles which govern society and replace it with rationalism or intellectualism in its most extreme form.

Binah is about the use of intelligence that seeks to understand. It takes an idea, questions and explores it, and derives one thing out of another thing. It doesn’t start with a blank slate, as if people or society does not exist or matter. It’s intelligence that builds on what we know to arrive at a deeper understanding of the universe.

Plague: Darkness – a closed mind
Sefirot: Chochmah – wisdom

Following the plague of locusts, a complete darkness swept across Egypt. The closed mind that darkness represents and the inverted intelligence of the previous plague are closely related, just as the Sefirot of Binah and Chochmah are partners.

A closed mind cannot conceive of new ideas. It thinks it knows everything it has to know. That there are no secrets left to be revealed mysteries left to solve. It can apply to a society as equally as it can to a person. The Egyptians believed they were masters of their world; because they could build huge structures and perform magic tricks, there was nothing left to learn.

Chochmah, wisdom which comes from understanding, keeps the mind wide open. Suspending ego, it is the first flash of intellect that leads to an idea, but still with the limitless potential of what could be. Darkness is the opposite of it, and true wisdom comes from freeing the mind of any barrier or burden it may be enslaved to.

Plague: Death of the Firstborn – loss of identity
Sefirot: Keter – supra-consciousness

The last of the plagues was the most devastating, the loss of the firstborn children of the Egyptians. This represented the loss of identity which the slavery in Mitzrayim inflicted on the children of Israel. Slavery destroys identity, that’s its purpose. When one is a slave, physically in chains, or emotionally to an all-consuming, negative force, ones identity is destroyed.

Keter is the state of our soul. On the pictorial representation of the ten Sefirot it exists above, also known as the ‘divine crown.’ When the Sefirot are applied to the human body, Keter sits above the head. It’s the connection between ourselves and the infinity that surrounds us. It’s the beam of white light that everyone from Buddhist monks to mystical Kabbalists agrees emanates from the Universe into our souls.

The worst thing about slavery is the loss of this connection to our supra-consciousness. It can never be destroyed, each of the Sefirot are intrinsic points of our humanity, but slavery will make the very notion of Keter inconceivable to us.

Freeing ourselves from slavery, embarking on an exodus from Mitzrayim involves a journey of epic proportions. For the Israelites, everything happened all at once. The plagues came, the chains of bondage were severed, but it took 40 more years of wandering to finally arrive at the Promised Land.

We are not meant to become the perfect human. Judaism has no saints, only real people with real flaws, but who overcame great challenges nonetheless. It’s not the destination; it’s the journey that counts. We have to get as far away from Egypt as possible. Fortunately we have been given a map of how to get out.

Zvi Henderson

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