Thursday, January 03, 2008

Extreme Makeover of a Redemptive Kind

By Judith Schiller
Verse Per Verse

As the page of our secular calendar turns to a new year, many folks may think about New Year’s resolutions. While this often lacks the deeper inner work of teshuva that we undertake during the Jewish New Year, it gets people thinking of ways they want to change their lives, set new goals. But what does it take to effect fundamental transformation in our lives?

As we enter parshat Vaera, we are at the very beginning stages of an enormous change process. B’nai Yisrael is inured to slavery, lacking hope and vision of a better life. Any notion of change is met with hostility and mistrust, especially since things have only gotten worse since Moses’ and Aaron’s initial efforts to persuade Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go free. Moses expresses his frustration to God and accuses God of “not rescuing your people.” Here God reconfirms His promise, and tells Moses in Shemot 6:6-8

6. Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the YHWH; and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from servitude to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great (acts of) judgments;
7. I will take you to me for a people, and I will be for you a God; and you shall know that I am the YHWH your God, who brings you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt.
(Everett Fox translation)

We find here a curious set of verbs, corresponding to the four cups of wine we drink at our Passover seder often translated as:

Hotzeiti - I will bring you out/ I shall take you away
Hitzalti - I will rescue you/ free you
Ga-alti - I will redeem you/ liberate you
Lakachti - I will take you (to Me)

At first glance these words have similar meanings. They appear to be different ways of saying essentially the same thing. Are they all synonyms for redemption or liberation? Or is this an intentional sequence of words? Do they need to go in this order?

In the Stone Chumash, the editor notes that these two verses contain four different expressions, representing progressive stages of the redemption of B’nai Yisrael . R’Bachya explains that the expressions, start with being removed from the burdens of slavery and culminate with being given the Torah at Sinai.

Biblical references of redemption often are within the contexts of: a redeeming kinsman who can buy back property; paying the ransom of a captive; or a case of levirate marriage in which a widow marries her deceased husband’s brother, in order to provide a child in her late husband’s name. In all these situations, we find a theme of restoration, of recouping from loss or lower status.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees these verses describing a rescue from a dangerous and destructive situation. God is stepping in as the redeeming kinsman through whom the Hebrews will regain their rights and independence.

A search for definitions of redemption yielded various possibilities, including:

To make up for
To restore the honor, worth, or reputation of:
To set free; rescue or ransom.
To save from a state of sinfulness and its consequences.

Some synonyms for redemption are:

change, transform, recapture, reclaim, recoup, regain, reinstate, repay, repossess, restore, win back

In these verses we find the outline of the change that is about to start for B’nai Israel culminating in verse 6:8:

I will bring you into the land (over) which I lifted my hand (in an oath) to give to Avraham, Yitzhak, and to Yakov.

In essence, we are looking at an extreme makeover of the soul of a people, being brought out from slavery to freedom, to a new life, new identity, and a new world order.

Redemption implies a change from a lower state of being to a higher one. I’m drawn to the notion that these verses describe progressive stages of redemption. If any of these stages do not happen, redemption is incomplete. It may be a rescue but not transformation. In this sequence of actions we find a model of full restoration of dignity and renewed purpose.

It reminds us that this notion of redemption is not a single act, but an intensive process, requiring several steps, and full commitment with full heart. We have examples of rescues in our world, past and present. For example, one could argue that the African Americans were freed from slavery, but were not fully redeemed, in that they were not provided new relationships, supports, respect, and a home as our Hebrew ancestors were. Last year we read in our local paper about the lost boys of Sudan, a group of young men who escaped a harsh and violent life in the Sudan to come to Cleveland, only to encounter violence and neglect in the U.S. Since their story broke, members of the community have stepped up to offer help in a variety of ways- food, housing, education, employment, and friendship. These actions of chesed are what made all the difference in restoring their dignity, hope and faith, and illustrate what it takes for humans to be agents of redemption for their fellow humans.

Back to Shemot 6:6-8, how else could we translate these verses? I suggest:

I will bring you out from under your pain and oppression; I will free you from your terrible burdens; I will make up for this time of harshness and dehumanization and restore your honor, worth, and reputation. Then we can be in a loving relationship, and live together in a new place, defined by new terms.

May God’s model of redemption of B’nai Yisrael inform our efforts in being agents of redemption for ourselves and others.

Wishing you peace, love and blessings in 2008.

1 comment:

  1. what a lovely concept of growing toward redemption. and i love the list of words to describe the experience...