Do you know who I wish I could be like on Seder night? Walter Mitty! “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a story written by James Thurber in 1939. It was made into a film in 1947.
Walter Mitty has a vivid imagination. In fact, he gets utterly lost in his fantastical imagination. Anything he sees can trigger him into a fantasy world where he takes on the character he imagines. In a few dozen paragraphs he imagines himself as a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devilish killer. He becomes so engrossed in his daydream that he loses sight of where he is or what he’s doing.
His name has come to characterize people who become too absorbed in daydreams and fantasies. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary defines a Walter Mitty as “an ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs.”
Until recently, hanging on the wall of the shul in Ashar was a beautiful panoramic picture of Sha’ar Yaffo lit up at night. During davening, especially when mentioning Yerushalayim, I would often look at the picture and wish I could lose myself in it like Walter Mitty.
Ba’alei Mussar note that our koach hatziyur—our ability to imagine and picture things, can be a powerful tool in regards to elevating our Avodas Hashem. When one davens he should picture himself standing before a king, and when one learns Torah he should imagine Hashem watching proudly, along with legions of angels.
On Seder night we strive to lose ourselves in the pages of the haggadah as the story comes alive before us. On this one night the Haggadah itself exhorts us to be like Walter Mitty, jumping into the pages of the text before us in the epic account of exile and redemption.
But what if I am not as imaginative as Walter Mitty and cannot picture us as slaves in Egypt? What if I can’t bring myself to experience the pain of the servitude in the iron crucible of Egyptian exile, or the joy of being freed from bondage?
The word “Mitzrayim” literally means boundaries. On the night of the redemption, our ancestors were able to penetrate and break free of the shackles of exile that spiritually paralyzed them for more than two centuries. On that night they were able to become who they really wanted to become. They were finally free to serve God as He demanded.
The redemption symbolizes to every one of us that we too have the ability—with God’s help—to traverse and break free of the limitations and boundaries that restrain us from being who we really pine to become. We too can triumph over the Pharaohs that shackle us from overcoming the boundaries that constrict and restrict us. If God took out a hapless defenseless nation of millions from the nefarious clutches of the most powerful and domineering nation on earth, He surely can redeem us from our personal struggles and vicissitudes as well.
You don’t need to have a vivid imagination to picture yourself leaving Egypt. All you need is belief in yourself to begin the journey, and faith that God will lead you to your Promised Land.
By Rabbi Dani Staum
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, Guidance Counselor and fifth-grade Rebbe in ASHAR, Principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor and a division head at Camp Dora Golding. He also presents parenting classes based on the acclaimed Love and Logic methods. His email address is [email protected]. His website is www.stamtorah.info.