A friend of mine was working through “some stuff” in his life, and told me a powerful anecdote.

“I always feel the need to be doing something. No matter what, no matter where, I always need to be doing something productive or useful.

“It’s debilitating. And as I got older, I increasingly realized how this tendency was eating away at my inner peace, to the extent that it impacted my daily life.

“At my therapist’s suggestion, I tried an exercise that changed my life: Every day, I was to go to a local park and sit on a bench for an entire half hour… and do nothing! I wasn’t allowed to look at my phone, read a book, talk to anyone, or even think about anything specific. The only thing I could do was literally nothing; let my mind wander wherever it wanted without being conscious of it. For a full half hour.”

Breaking our nature is something profoundly difficult—and life-changing, too.

Dear, G‑d, Why so Dark?

As the narrative in our parshah turns to darker times, we read how the People of Israel were subjected to back-breaking labor:

So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labor.1

Much has been written about the reason they were subjected to this terrible, dark saga. Why was such suffering necessary? What was the purpose of this long, drawn-out oppression?

In fact, Moses himself cries out to G‑d at the end of our parshah, “Why are you afflicting these people so?!”

One of the reasons this question is so important is because it’s not just limited to a band of Hebrews thousands of years ago. Rather, it is a question we all ask at some point: Dear G‑d, why is life so challenging? Why are You being so hard on me? What is the purpose of this darkness?

To Get to a Better Place

There are many ways of understanding it, one of which suggests that the darkness of Egypt was a necessary step to reach the subsequent light of the Torah at Sinai. You see, the uncanny thing about life is that when everything is going swell, there’s really no room for it to get better. After all, if life is good, why rock the boat? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, they told you—and they were right, no?

But as many successful entrepreneurs will tell you, this is simply not true. Usually, to reach true greatness, disruption is in order—a bold and brave step to abandon what was good enough yesterday and try to reach for the impossibly better tomorrow.

Some people do it on their own, giving up cushy positions or decent relationships and jumping ship with no plan, all on the belief that with time and effort, they can do much better. For others, it just happens—you lose your job, your relationships break down, or you miss out on an opportunity you were hoping for. And if you’re lucky enough to see through it all, you persevere and tough it out, confident that on the other side of it all, there’s something even greater in store.

Thank G‑d, this is often how it works out. You get an even better job and start a business, realizing in hindsight that your previous position would have trapped you in mediocrity forever. You find new meaning in your existing relationships or forge new ones, lifting you out of the mediocrity that once ruled your life.

This is the see-saw of life, and it’s not random at all. It’s how G‑d engineered it to be.

Going back to our ancestors in Egypt, the ultimate plan was to usher them to the foot of Mount Sinai and give them the Torah. But such a gift, such a level of closeness between G‑d and the people, is incredibly deep and powerful—deeper than anything that came before it.

It was simply impossible to get from the complacency of the beginning days of the Egyptian Jewish experience, when all was fine and dandy, to the awesomeness of Sinai.

To bridge this impossible gap, there needed to be a period of breakage in between. A time that would remove the stagnancy of ‘before’ to get to the maturity of ‘after.’ This was the darkness of slavery; the crush of Egyptian oppression.

Getting Off Easy

In a stirring address in 1951, the Rebbe referenced this idea and added an encouraging point: While it’s true that the storyline of Egypt repeats itself in our life every day, it doesn’t have to look exactly the same as it did back then. The core idea that we must endure some form of hardship to mature holds true. But it doesn’t necessarily need to look as dark and grueling as the horrific suffering in Egypt.

For example, the Talmud interprets “The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor,” not so much as hauling around heavy bricks, but, “The men did the women’s work, and the women did the men’s work.”

Why is this considered back-breaking?

“Because it’s unnatural,” the Talmud explains. In other words, what makes something particularly difficult is not measured by how physically taxing it may be, but by how much you must break your own nature to do it.

If you’re someone who isn’t used to making a task list and scheduling your day, preferring to wing things as they come, then sitting down and forcing yourself to make that list can be harder than running a marathon. If you’re the type who likes knowing everything three weeks in advance, then relying on your friend who will “touch base” on the day of your impending meet up can be more taxing that scaling Mount Everest.

Breaking your nature is a very difficult thing to do.

So instead of building pyramids under the whip of a taskmaster, you have another, far simpler recourse to get to your better tomorrow: do a small something good that runs counter to your nature.

If you’re used to eating certain foods that aren’t so kosher, breaking yourself to keep away from them is a gargantuan task. If you’re afraid of water, regularly going to the mikvah can be quite a challenge. If you’re not used to the regimen of doing something every day—let alone three times a day!—to break that tendency and pray regularly is like walking through fire.

But when you do it, you will have left Egypt and be well on your way to your personal revelation at Sinai.2