by Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld
"I am God who took you out of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it." (Psalms 81:11)
What does it mean to widen your mouth? And what does it mean that the Almighty will fill it? And last but by no means least, what does this have to do with the Almighty having taken us out of the land of Egypt? What does the Exodus have to do with this mysterious, enigmatic call to us to open our mouths wider?
So let's talk a little about the power of speech. There is a famous Targum (Genesis 2:7) that states, "God blew into his nostrils a breath of life, and the person became a living spirit." This is the point of the arrival of the first human being into the cosmos. The Almighty blew a breath of life into his nostrils, and he became a living spirit. What does this mean? What is a living spirit? Targum explains it as "a spirit that speaks." A creature that has the power of speech. That defines a human being, his ability to speak.
We take the power of speech for granted. We don't think about the root and the significance of the power of speech. We use it, we abuse it. And we never know what it means. We never even stop to consider what it is all about. But the Targum tells us that the power of speech is the sign of a human being. He is a spirit that speaks. And this shows us that the power of speech is the device that reveals the tremendous potential that lies in the soul of every human being.
It's an interesting thing. This theme, about the power of speech, comes up again in relation to Pesach, in the famous thought that has trickled down to us from the Arizal, the great Kabbalist... He said that there is an allusion to speech in the word "Pesach," because the word can be parsed to become "peh sach," the mouth speaks. What does the mouth speaking have to do with the holiday of Pesach? A lot, says the Arizal. The depth and the sharpest point of the exile in Egypt was that the Jewish people did not speak their own language. And the high point of their redemption was that they resumed speaking their own language.
It's obvious that the Arizal is not concerned about whether they were speaking Hebrew or Egyptian or any other language. That's not what he's talking about. He is making a very deep and powerful point.
Let's say, for example, that a person is born with an acute and preeminent talent for music. When this person is playing his instrument and making his music, he is clearly expressing the feelings of his innermost being. He is a musician, and he expresses himself through his music. It is the same with a person who is born with a talent for art. When he is painting or drawing or however he articulates his artistic sensibilities, he is clearly expressing the feelings of his innermost being.
Now, suppose you were to take this musician or this artist and you were to tell him, "You would make a very good electrician, so I want you to go to work as an electrician." This person may spend his whole life as an electrician. He may make a lot of money and become very rich. But in the end, when his life is over, he will have lived out his years without giving expression to his innermost being, because this person was a musician or an artist. He was not an electrician.
Each individual human being has his own singular nature and inner core. Each nation also has its singular inner essence, which is expressed in many ways -- in its language, in its modes of expression, in its modes of behavior and thought. And when a nation or a people cannot express their own inner essence, but instead find themselves expressing and mouthing the thoughts of other people who do not reflect their inner selves, they are said to be in exile. That is the real meaning of exile.
The same applies to an individual. When a person has to live his whole life and do work and practice a lifestyle that does not emanate from his inner being, he is in exile. A musician who spends his life as an electrician, even if he prospers, is unquestionably living in exile...
These are very subtle things, but they are crucial to the whole psychological structure of a human being. So many people who are weak live their entire lives, talking, talking, talking, and they never really express themselves. They never really tap in to their inner selves. This is unfortunately the way it is with innumerable people. It is a universal human problem.
During the exile in Egypt, the spiritual exile in the land of Egypt, the Jewish people were hemmed in. The name Mitzrayim, Egypt, is also understood as metzarim, boundaries. A meitzar is a narrow boundary of confinement. The Jewish people were in a situation of narrowness in which the Jewish soul could not express itself.
Ancient Egypt had a highly developed culture, a big culture that made tremendous contributions to civilization. Good and fine, but the singular spirit that our forefathers represented, the spirit that emanated from the essence of their beings and that was perpetuated in their children afterwards, that spirit was stifled. When the Jewish people were immersed in the Egyptian culture, they could not express themselves in their own modes of expression. Their inner beings remained unarticulated. They were forced into a situation where they found themselves speaking an alien language, literally and figuratively.
And this was their exile.
So the Almighty said, "I took you out of Egypt. I removed you from the situation of your exile. The narrow boundaries that hemmed you in and stifled the expression of your own inner selves no longer exist. You are no longer living in an alien culture and driven to express yourselves in terms and concepts that do not reflect what is in your own souls, in your own inner essence. You have been emancipated. You are free to express yourself in the way that is most natural to yourselves. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. Forget the narrowness and the constriction. Open your mouth wide, and I will help you find the natural expression that you seek."
What does "open your mouth wide" mean in our own terms? It is a question of range. Make a study of the range of topics that people discuss and you'll be shocked at how narrow the spectrum of our conversations is. I don't have to list the topics for you, but you know what they are. Again and again, the same things.
A young man once came to me [after going on a date] and said, "Everything was going fine. We were having a pleasant conversation. And then I started talking about spirituality, and she got a hysterical look in her eyes. It was like I frightened her or something."
What happened here? Was she opposed to spirituality? Of course not. She was a very fine young woman. But her range! The range of what she allowed herself to express was so limited. She had no appreciable range. The young man had stepped into territory that was a little out of her range, and she became disoriented.
This young woman was in exile. She was caught in the narrow boundaries, confined to the expressions that society considered acceptable, while her own natural expressions were stifled. And so she was frightened. It happens. I'm telling you from my experience. It's a common thing. You can frighten someone with that.
I once had a conversation with a man... We were talking about a certain charitable cause, and we had a bitter argument. I said to him, "What's the matter with you? You can't raise $5,000 a year for this thing? You have a wide circle of friends. You have connections. Why can't you get involved in this mitzvah? A man like you shouldn't be limited in his responsibilities. Your community is global." But it didn't penetrate. Maybe he would have to take a day off. Maybe he would have to work for it. I saw the narrowness. He wouldn't allow his soul to open up to the idea.
This man was in exile, just as if he had been down in Egypt. He wouldn't expand his being to allow this form to come into his being. He could not see beyond supporting his own wife and children all the way to worrying about other Jews. In the totality of his being, he could not find a little corner for other people who don't have.
The Almighty says, "open your mouth." Expand your horizons. Break out of your narrowness. Widen the range of your conversations. Talk about what's real, what's important...
What is the significance of talking? It means that you are allowing yourself to feel and to express that which was shut off. It means that you're introducing a new tributary that is flowing into the ocean of your soul. It means that you're exploring thoughts and aspirations that are important but unarticulated. You have difficulties? Talk about it. Bring it into the open. But people are afraid to talk about it. It's not because the topics are too serious. No. It's because the people themselves are so narrowed in that they cannot talk about these things. They can't add new dimensions to their lives. They're afraid to face up to their insecurities and their unhappiness. They're in exile.
You want to know if you're big or you're small? Open your eyes and see, then you're big. What are you afraid of? Get out and talk about it. This is the criterion of who's a big person and who's not.
Reprinted with permission from InnerNet.org, and excerpted from "IN SEARCH OF GREATNESS." Published by Judaica Press.