The R Word

Hazzan Notes, The Scroll, March 2014 

The calendar is turning around to that part of the year when we start thinking about Pesach. While the story of the Exodus was read in the Torah in December and January (this year), the calendar places mile-markers for us on our time-journey to the first seder. Starting with March 1, we’ll have four several Shabbatot with special maftir Torah readings to cue our attention to the spring festival of freedom.*

The number four figures prominently in the festival of Pesach. In addition to the four special Shabbatot that lead up to Pesach, we have four cups of wine, four sons, four questions. Each of these is based on the four Divine Gestures presented in God’s voice in the Exodus, 6:6-7:

Therefore say unto the children of Israel: I am The ETERNAL, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

Each of these phrases means different things to different interpreters, but of the four, the one that seems most mysterious is the third: I will redeem you. The other three are clear enough: I will bring you out, I will save you from slavery, I will bring you to Me (to be in a relationship with God). But what does it mean to be redeemed when we’ve already been taken out of Egypt and delivered (saved) from slavery? What is redemption?

This question came up on a recent Shabbat morning during the Torah discussion, and, as usual, members of the community had their own erudite offerings in response. By the context of the Exodus story, it seems enough to say that redemption has something to do with being brought out of Egypt. But there must be more to it than that, since that task is completed by the statement, “I will bring you out” or even “I will save you.” Why the additional gesture of redemption?

The S’fat Emet, the Hasidic rabbi of Ger in Poland at the end of the 19th century, compares slavery to exile, and freedom to redemption, playing on the Hebrew golah (exile) and ge’ulah (redemption), which share almost the same root letters. (And thank you to Haya Laufer for reminding me of this teaching.) In his construction, the Israelites were so numbed by their slavery that they’d lost their ability to speak or to sing; they didn’t even realize their burden. It was somehow between the moment of coming out of Egypt and then standing at the shore of the sea before it split that they were fully awakened to their new status. And so, simply being brought out (the first Divine Gesture) was not enough to create a relationship with God, and even being saved from the pain of slavery (the second Divine Gesture) was still just a step towards something greater, towards the completion of the transformation from golah to ge’ulah, from exile in Egypt to freedom in the wilderness of Sinai. The redemptive moment (the third Divine Gesture), when their awareness of God’s Presence was fully realized, was the essential link to establishing that relationship between the people and God in the story.

For me, redemption means being brought out of the false perception that we are separate from God into the true reality that we are essentially connected with our Divine Source. The false perception of separation is a product of our maturation. Developmental pediatricians tell us that from birth to about six months, we don’t know that we’re separate beings from our parents. Around age six months, we begin to realize that we are separate, which makes sense if you’ve ever been with an infant around eight months of age, when he or she will start displaying separation anxiety. And we cycle through these moments of connection, separation, and faith all through our lives, through our playground years, our teen years of navigating the complex world of social relationships, and into adulthood, when life can become even more demanding.

We can’t help but interpret God’s Presence through the lens of our everyday experiences, and, for most of us, that lens is narrow and limited. Encountering disappointment, loss, pain, and frustration, inevitable facets of human experience, we may struggle to believe in Divine Goodness. If you follow the trajectory of the Exodus account, these places of limitation and even pain are the needed context for our redemptive experiences—the sun is always brightest after a storm. In moments when we transcend the obstructed view of most days, when we find the sea splitting before us, the psychic distance of lost faith falls away to reveal the constant light of Holy Presence. To paraphrase Mordecai Kaplan, understood in this way, God is the process that makes for redemption, and likewise, our experiences of everyday redemption might open the door to deepening faith.

The structure of the four Divine Gestures in this spring season is one way we revisit and ritualize this cycle of faith, originally portrayed in our Exodus story. As we prepare for our seder gatherings this year, may the journey of the Exodus feel present and immediate for us, and may we all enjoy the redemptive power of the tradition.

Hazzan Rachel


*March 1 – Shabbat Shekalim – we read from parashat Ki Tissa about the obligation of everyone to give a half-shekel for the upkeep of the mishkan in the wilderness. Later, in Temple times, this would be invoked to raise taxes for the cleaning and maintenance of the Temple, to prepare it for the spring pilgrimage.

March 22 – Shabbat Parah – we read from parashat Chukat about the now arcane-sounding rituals of purification involving a parah adumah, a red heifer, and the specific details to render a person purified of any impurities, a cue to begin our own purification practices for the spring festival of freedom.

March 29 – Shabbat HaChodesh – we read from parashat Bo, which says, “this month will be the first of all the months for you [Israel],” suggesting that the first commandment the Israelites received from God in the Exodus story was the commandment to reorient their sense of time to begin with the month of freedom, Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year.

April 12 – Shabbat HaGadol – we read a special haftarah from the prophet Malachi, which gives voice to the name for this Shabbat, “great and awesome” (gadol v’norah), the last Shabbat before the seder, considered equal in importance to the Shabbat between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shuvah. These same passages are the ones chosen by the Reconstructionist editors for their version of the haftarah blessings: the Messianic moment will be when the hearts of children and parents turn to one another with understanding and respect.