An analysis of the psychology of change through the lens of the Passover story
Rabbi Nachi Friedman
Because of the tremendous pressures of Passover preparation, it is so easy to lose focus on the upcoming holiday. Between the massive Passover cleaning, spring cleaning and preparing ourselves for the upcoming restrictive diet/havoc on one’s internal plumbing of Matzah, it is only natural to become absorbed by the restrictive nature and stress that accompanies this holiday. We describe the holiday of Passover in our prayers as compiled by our sages as זמן חרותנו “a time of freedom”, but yet this freedom feels more restrictive than the remainder of the year. In many homes, cleaning and “chametz extermination” has begun weeks prior to the holiday and intensifies as the holiday nears. We can potentially become so lost in the details and enslaved by our process that we lose the bigger picture and the feelings of freedom and joy that this holiday was intended to generate.
On the night of Passover, during the customary extended meal called the “seder”, we are instructed to read passages and follow specific steps throughout the night. Family customs vary on this night, but overall themes are consistent. Rambam, Maimonides (1138–1204), explains this rigid process is to create an environment and replicate the experience as if those at the table were actually leaving Egypt themselves. This comment of Rambam is in contrast to the commandment/obligation of our daily remembrance of the exodus in which we merely remind ourselves of the miracles and how G-d took the Jewish nation out of Egypt long ago. Rambam states that on Passover, it is not enough to merely remember and state the details, but one must create an experience where one reenacts and feels the emotions of the exodus. For example, we eat symbolic foods such as Matzah, poor man’s bread, and marror, bitter herbs, to commemorate and relive the story of Egypt. Family customs are developed to further customize this message and engage each participant to participate in a mental exercise of what it would feel like to be slaves and freed. For many, just the feeling of no longer having to clean for Passover suffices!
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853 – 1918) points out that the Jews were not just workers to Pharaoh in Egypt, but were mentally slaves. The idea behind the wondrous miracles and powerful plagues that befell Egypt were not just to halt the slave workload, but to rid of the slave mentality shared by all Jews in order to enable them to leave Egypt. While the narrative of the story shared on the night of Passover focuses on the hardship that our ancestors experienced and the omnipotent miracles that liberated them from the cruel and relentless Egyptians and Pharaoh, Rabbi Soloveitchik adds that this feeling of freedom required freedom of labor as well as freedom of the mind. Our journey from slaves to the Jewish Nation was both a physical and a cognitive exodus. Thus, our job at the “seder” is to feel as if we are leaving Egypt, both physically and cognitively.
In many ways, we are all cognitively slaves. How many things do we do on a daily basis not just because we want to, but because we have to. Do we always work towards our values or do external pressures, addictions, and weaknesses assuage us to become distracted and veer off our path? If I wish to become smarter and learn more, why do I distract myself with social media, Netflix or other vices that fill my time? How can I utilize Passover, the holiday of freedom, to liberate myself and my schedule? How can I change….
One of the unique customs of the Passover night is the drinking of the four cups of wine throughout the Seder. While many foods eaten have dual meanings (Matzah is both the bread of affliction as well as the symbol of the Jews’ liberation), wine appears to only symbolize freedom (Aside from the custom to dip our finger in red wine to symbolize the blood). Yet, wine is used throughout the night, not just at the end of the night where our focus shifts from remembering the enslavement to remembering the freedom! The four cups of wine are also not generally assigned but are strategically assigned at various milestones and areas throughout the night. Understanding the message of the 4 cups of wine may help us utilize the holiday to change our mentality and free ourselves.
Whether it is changing a habit, self-improvement, changing professions or as big as changing from slavery to freedom, change undergoes a long process. Rabbi David Fohrman in his book The Exodus You Almost Passed Over, asks why the exodus had to happen with the 10 plagues and not magic carpets to whisk all the Jews away. Rabbi Fohrman’s question alludes to a process and not just a rescue mission. This process is clarified by the 4 languages of freedom as explained below.
While there are numerous explanations as to why we drink four cups of wine on Passover night, the widely accepted reason is that the 4 cups of wine correspond to the 4 languages of redemption proclaimed by G-d in the book of Exodus: והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי (take out of Egypt, save, redeem and bring to Israel). Each language of redemption appears to correspond to a different stage of the change process to free to Jewish nation of the slavery mentality. It is via the 4 cups of wine that we commemorate and experience the stages of change.
Just like there are 4 cups of wine and 4 languages of redemption, there are 4 stages of change mentioned in psychological research: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Action and Maintenance (Prochaska et al., 1992). Precontemplation is the first stage where one has no intention to change one’s behavior. In this stage the individual may be unaware of the problem. Contemplation is the next stage where the individual is aware of the problem but not committed towards an action. The individual knows where he or she wishes to be but is not yet ready to go there. The third stage, Action, is where behavior is modified or changes to the environment have been made to resolve the problem. This stage requires commitment, energy and effort. Finally, Maintenance is the final stage in which the individual fights to prevent relapse and maintain the commitments and progress of the action stage.
While successfully changing a behavior or resolving a problem does not always occur on the first try, this process can be repeated entirely or partially to become successful. So too, redemption is not a one time event, rather, it is an active duty upon all of us to maintain and continue to change today. Our change process occurred in Egypt long ago and continues to the present day. Once a year we get together to reignite and revive this change process. This is done via the 4 cups of wine.
This first cup of wine is והוצאתי – “I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt”. In the Exodus story, this refers to the stoppage of the back-breaking labor of slavery. Sforno (1475 – 1550) writes that this stage of redemption occurred once the plagues began. We still lived in Egypt but no longer worked as slaves. This stage of change is parallel to the pre-contemplation stage of change. The Jewish nation was unaware of the mental toll this slavery has endowed on them. The nation had tunnel vision and hyper focused on the workload as it was difficult and completely over encompassing in their lives. G-d’s first redemption highlights the problem by removing the blindfold of slavery to reveal the problem at hand. How many times have we taken a vacation from work, school or from our house and realized a problem in our family dynamic?
The second cup of wine is והצלתי “I will rescue you”. In the Exodus story this is the physical action of G-d taking the Jewish nation out of Egypt. Sforno emphasizes this is merely the removal of the people from the borders of Egypt, not their spirit or their mind. The Jewish nation was still attached to Egypt culturally and emotionally despite being “free”. The Exodus story recounts that many complained to Moses upon traveling from Egypt to return to Egypt despite Egypt being a source of tremendous pain and suffering. Even when a problem is revealed, and solution/future is identified it is difficult to abandon one’s old habits. Old habits are comforting despite the pain they have caused and will cause. This stage of change, parallel to the contemplation stage, is not quite ready to take action as the individual is still holding onto the behavior.
The third cup of wine is וגאלתי “I shall redeem you”. Sforno writes that this happened after the sea split and drowned the Egyptians. This experience rebooted the internal constructs of the Jewish nation’s mind and removed the slave mentality from their cognition. While the second cup symbolized taking the Jew out of Egypt, this stage takes Egypt out of the Jew. This is the action stage where one removes any triggers of the behavior from one’s home and life. Previous stages have successfully revealed the areas that need change and this stage cleanses one’s system. While the Jewish nation was no longer “slaves” there still required one last stage to provide maintenance and direction.
The fourth cup of wine is ולקחתי “I shall take you to Me for a people”. In the exodus story this is where the Jews that left Egypt became a nation. The maintenance stage provided structure, accountability and a new relationship with G-d. Sforno writes that this occurred when the Jews stood as a nation by Mount Sinai ready to receive the Torah. After the action stage is complete, one’s behavior needs direction and structure. This stage prevents relapse and succumbing to the temptations of old habits. The direction and replacement behavior becomes one’s new normal and anchor to sustain the hard work performed in previous stages.
As we sit at our Passover meal this year and drink our 4 cups of wine, we are journeying through Exodus and the stages of change with our ancestors. As Rambam posits, we must experience the story as if we are leaving Egypt, going through these changes and becoming redeemed. This redemption is not just the removal of hard work (as symbolically done as we have stopped our cleaning for Passover), but the cognitive revival and freedom to pursue our goals, wishes and dreams. May we all use this Passover holiday and the power of the holiday of freedom to identify and rid ourselves of any behavior, cognition or aspect of our life that is encumbering ourselves. May we utilize the power of change that this holiday equips us with to maintain this level of spiritual inspiration and achievement throughout the year. When we drink each of the four cups of wine perhaps we can keep in mind one area of growth and achievement we would wish upon ourselves to change and maintain. Throughout the seder night, as we read the hagaddah, we can utilize this area of growth and change to accomplish the experiential experience Rambam mentioned as the unique obligation for the day. As we journey through the Exodus and relive the change, may we free ourselves of our negative behavior and create positive growth.
Wishing everyone a happy Passover and happy changing,
Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C.C., & Norcross, J.C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to the addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114. PMID: 1329589.