Imagine the moment: millions of people move together to freedom. They have left their masters behind, and they look forward to a new and better life. Suddenly, they hear the sound of horses and chariots. They see what looks like hundreds of horses, chariots and charioteers.
The awesome sound of beating hoofs and clanging wheels was surely terrifying. Yet, if the mass of former slaves were to look around, they’d realize a basic fact: While the oncoming forces were numerous, those soldiers were nowhere near the multitude of people whom Pharaoh sought to recapture. Why didn’t the slaves turn and confront their pursuers?
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (14:13) was troubled by this very question, “Why didn’t the Jewish people fight the Egyptians at Yam Suf?”
In answering, the Ibn Ezra’s shares an insight into human nature. Newly freed slaves cannot fight. From the time of their birth, slaves are conditioned to meekly carry the yoke of their masters. They do what they are told to do. They did not have the mindset necessary to take up arms and defend themselves. Even when given the opportunity, they could not organize in battle. If not for Hashem’s deliverance, a small number of Egyptians could have subdued a vastly larger camp of slaves.
The Ibn Ezra indicates that freedom from oppression is more than something physical. Often when the iron chains are broken, the mind chains remain. As we celebrate Pesach, we recognize the two stages of freedom. We speak of Hashem taking us from Egypt on the night of the Seder. When we read the Torah on the seventh day of Pesach, we describe the beginning of God’s work to free us from the mindset of a slave. As Moshe says, “As you see Egypt this day, you will no longer see them, forever.” The Ibn Ezra teaches that physical strength is not sufficient; we needed to develop strength of the psyche. He calls this nefesh gevoa.
The Ibn Ezra goes on to describe that the generation that first left Egypt was unable to leave behind their upbringing as slaves, even after they had crossed the sea. Their lack of confidence and faith as displayed in the story of the meraglim meant that it would have to be their children that ultimately entered the land. Only the next generation would be capable of fighting for the land of Israel.
The insight of the Ibn Ezra is gaining currency in the field of education, today. Researcher Angela Duckworth has found that the most successful students aren’t always the ones with the greatest natural aptitude. Rather, the most successful students are the ones who display a combination of passion and perseverance for a singular important goal. What the Ibn Ezra calls nefesh gevoa, she calls grit.
In an interview she describes how to develop grit:
“You cannot will yourself to be interested in something you’re not interested in. But you can actively discover and deepen your interest. So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are set backs.”
What Duckworth calls “hope or resilience,” we call emunah – faith. A crucial ingredient in shaking off the slave mindset is a hope that comes from knowing that Hashem is a part of our lives. Freedom of the mind requires this connection to Hashem. When we cultivate emunah in ourselves and in our children, we give them one of the most basic ingredients for success not just as students but in life more generally.
As a generation, we have challenges that past generations do not. We look back at the pure faith of our grandparents with envy. But as a generation, we also have opportunities that past generations did not. We have a nefesh gevoa. To be a Jew is something that the vast majority of Jews today take pride in. Yet, this is not sufficient. We must add to this pride, the ingredients of emunah in Hashem. We must approach our future as a people with passion and perseverance. As we celebrate Pesach, let us cultivate the mindset of freedom. Let us develop a nefesh gevoa to withstand setbacks and to overcome challenges, as our ancestors did many years ago.