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Breaking Boundaries: Lessons from Passover and Rollercoaster Rides

During the first intermediate day of Passover, I became aware of a limitation I was placing on myself.


In the morning of the first day of Chol Hamoed (intermediate festival days), I felt overwhelmed and anxious around praying. A Rabbi helped me realize a limitation I had around davenen (praying) with a minyan (congregation). This was comforting, which would lead to more synchronized learning of chassidus and davenen; however, on that day the emotions remained.


Later in the day, a friend invited me to Coney Island to ride rollercoasters. It was a great activity to get out of my head and face resistance, as well as practice letting go and surrendering to G-d.


I had ridden rollercoasters in the past, but rarely ones that drop the ride 90 degrees and launch the rider through various loops and inversions. Approaching the rides my friend chose with excitement, I felt fear and worry arise in my body. However, I convinced my inner child that it was Passover, “the season of our freedom,” and a time for breaking out of Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for "Egypt," which means boundaries and limitations!


In line for the ride, I became aware of all the voices of fear attempting to prevent me from taking the ride. The “what ifs” and “can you really trust this person strapping you in,” and even the subtle, “it’s not scary; I just don’t see a reason to do it.” As we approached the start of the ride, my heartbeat quickened and the voices grew louder and stronger. Only on the way up the 90-degree incline, moving ever-so-slowly, did my friend joke, “you sure you wanna do this?” At that point, there was no turning back. One can only surrender and enjoy the ride. In my experience, it wasn’t just a partial surrender, like snowboarding where I can trust the training I put in, but a full surrender, like flying in a plane. During this ride, I completely let go.


Then came the drop straight into the ride with all its turns and loops. Somewhere along the ride, while holding my kippah, it became enjoyable.


After the experience, walking to the next rollercoaster, I realized that what used to evoke thoughts and feelings of intimidation was now a sense of “that wasn’t so scary after all!”


In life, many experiences can trigger feelings akin to those anticipating a rollercoaster ride. As an unknown experience nears, the body does whatever it can to prevent the person from doing it, as illustrated above. Taking a higher perspective, such as affirming that everything is going to be okay, and using other soothing words and methods, one can enter the unknown without overwhelming emotion, which hopefully prevents the person from staying in fear.


The activity later taught me about the slyness of the “nefesh habahamis,” the animal soul. When approaching an unknown experience or some change in one’s life, the body does whatever it can to prevent change. It came to my attention that it could even use the language of “kedusha,” holiness, to keep a person in the emotions of the past—anxiety, feeling stuck, fear.


Allow me to explain.


In orthodox Jewish life, there are mundane activities and holy activities, such as learning Torah, performing mitzvos (commandments), praying, and giving tzedaka (charity). For all actions, there is a healthy or beneficial way of performance and an unhealthy or non-beneficial way of performance. For example, exercising, eating, sleeping, and learning are all healthy activities that can be performed in unhealthy ways.


Put simply, one can do all the healthy things, but in unhealthy ways. In terms of an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, a person even, G-d forbid, can do holy things in a limited way. Furthermore, a person can misunderstand the intention behind some activities, perhaps giving importance to secondary things.


Many holy activities, like going to the mikveh (ritual bath) in the morning, learning chassidus, and praying, are very holy activities that I was “running to” do and looking forward to. However, I still felt anxious about each one, as if it was something I had to get to and the interim was uncomfortable.


Proverbs 3:17 says about the Torah, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” Yet, when it came to holy matters in Torah, like davenen (praying) with a minyan (congregation), I was waking up anxious and feeling prevented from truly connecting with G-d. Unfortunately, these sacred activities still expressed anxiousness.


In other words, a person can be in a holy jail, with many great things. But, at the end of the day, it’s still a jail. It may be a limited way of thinking about something holy, but it’s still limited thinking.


This type of limited mindset is what must be broken through.


It is mentioned in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Emor, that during the first Exodus from Egypt we had to flee Egypt in haste, without enough time to even leaven our bread. This refers to the “nefesh habahamis,” the animal soul, because even though G-d took the Jews out of Egypt, referring to their "nefesh elokis," the godly soul, the Jews still had to get the Egypt out of them. In other words, we have to refine and train the body to feel what the godly soul understands - to feel and embrace freedom. Thus, there will be freedom internally and externally. As it is written, in the future (in the now), redemption will be in a manner of walking and of calm. May it be now!


Let go and enjoy the ride! Make a non-negotiable decision that you’re getting on the ride. All the voices of limitation will be realized as simply fear (acronym for false evidence appearing real), and then you’ll be left, G-d willing, enjoying the experience. (If it’s not a pleasurable experience, at least now the decision to not get on is from experience, not fear).


The above can be applied to the "rollercoaster ride" of "avodah," inner work, such as in meditation, silence, prayer, and other tools and disciplines to refine and elevate one's character.

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