Tell Your Inner Pharaoh: Let My Whole Self Go!

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Have a good weekend!  This cheery greeting, usually delivered on Friday to departing co-workers or customers, has a bittersweet undertone.  It might mean, have a good week-end, because how could you have a good work week.  Week-ends in American culture, at least since the 50’s, have been a time of personal autonomy sandwiched in between the days spent workin’ for da man.  We might go up to the cabin or  hop on our John Deere and mow that suburban lawn.  It might be the time for a brew and a game.  Church on Sunday morning.  A picnic.  Play time with the kids.  Whatever.  The essence of weekend is whatever.  Whatever you choose to do.

It is this last that always captures me.  Each day, not just on weekends, we have choices about what to do.  We might perceive our week as so packed with duty, so loaded with responsibilities and obligations that there remains no room for choice, for the exercise of free will.  No escape.

It is not so, however, not ever.  As humans, we have not only the freedom, but the responsibility to scan our lives and decide whether the choices we make match up with our own deepest values.  If they don’t, something needs to give and it might be all those duties and obligations. 

Too hard, you say?  The downsides too great?  I can see how you might say that, but let me reverse those questions.  What is the price of continuing on your present course?  What downside do you face from chewing up your soul each day, then trying to patch it back together at night or, on the weekend?

We celebrate this weekend such a crisis moment for the Jews of Ramses II’s Egypt.  In those days the Jews, according to the Torah, had traded their rescue from starvation for the life of slaves.  They spent their days working in the fields, on construction gangs, making bricks.  It seemed, to any objective observer, that they had no freedom, no choice in the matter.  After all, they were a poor, subject people ruled by the mightiest land in all the known world.  They lived out back in the slave quarters, while the Egyptians lived in the big house.

What could they do? 

Moses, a child of the slaves, had grown up in the pharaoh’s court through circumstances which you know.  God spoke to him.  Tell pharaoh to let my people go.  This frightened Moses and frightened many of the Jews.  Freedom scares us.  Something bad might happen.  Yes, things are bad, but they could be worse.  Just imagine.

God was insistent.  Moses came back from Canaan and confronted Ramses.  He would not let the Jews go.  They were his slaves, why should he?  Let the Jews go.  Ten times Moses insisted, ten time Ramses said no.  After the tenth plague–one followed each of Ramses’ refusals–Ramses’ relented.  The death of the first born proved too much.  The angel of death had been thwarted in the slave quarters by lamb’s blood smeared on door frames, so death passed over the homes of the Jews.  Thus was born this celebration of liberation we know today as Passover.

There is more to the story.  The Jews leave Egypt and set out on the Exodus, one of the great emigration stories of world literature.  What happens along the way?  Many of the Jews don’t like the sudden freedom, the necessity to fend for themselves, the lack of certainty about where they will find next week’s and next month’s food.  Some want to go back to Egypt.  Even Aaron, the brother of Moses, helps the people melt down their gold to create a golden calf, an object toward which they could send their pleas.  There is a lot of backsliding, a desire to return to that old, familiar world where freedom didn’t exist, where choice was not a possibility. A world known. 

Every day we face the same questions the Jews faced in Egypt.  Every day we face the same questions Ramses faced.  Our frightened inner self, fearful of the consequences of autonomy kneels in front of the cultural Ramses we have each inherited as we grew up.  A brave, hopeful aspect of our self, perhaps the dreamer or the rebel or the advocate rises up every now and then against our inner Ramses, but all too often all he has to say is, no.  Think of the cost.  Think of the choices you will have to make on your own.  No, better to not quit your day job.  No, better to not take the risk with the significant people in your life.  No, let’s just leave things as they are.  At least we know what happens.

Some day though, on some great wakin’ up  mornin’, the dreamer within us decides that pharaoh must let his people go.  That no matter what the risks, the desert of an unknown future is better than continued subjugation.  Then, we step off the plantation, turn our back on the south and head north, toward the drinking gourd.

Is life easy then?  No.  Do we build our golden calves, false idols that try to subjugate us once again?  Of course we do. We are, after all, only human.  Yet now we have tasted freedom.  We know how to say no to pharaoh; and that lesson, once learned, cannot be unlearned.  It will always prod us forward, keep our legs moving toward the promised land.

So, over this weekend, this passover weekend, I hope you’ll take a moment in private and consider a confrontation with your inner pharaoh.  Send him ten plagues, hell, send him twenty, but don’t give up.  Tell him he has to let  your whole Self go.

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