Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Walk Article-B'shalach




Rabbi David Walk


            There's a fascinating phenomenon in Jewish education.  We teach young people the translations of words, and we're happy when they get it right on a test.  But we're sadly mistaken if we think that any pedagogic goal has been achieved if they still don't understand the concept.  I once asked an adorable fourth grader what the Hebrew word geula meant.  With a big a smile the youngster replied, 'Redemption!'  I then asked what redemption meant.  Without any lessening of the beautiful smile, the child said, 'No clue!'  The kid didn't need to know what the idea was, just how to translate it.  Educational success comes when the student uses the original word correctly in context, and it becomes part of the young person's working vocabulary.  The situation is sad, because I have a sneaking suspicion that many Jews haven't a clue what the concept of redemption is.  I guess that I shouldn't be sad, because it does give me a topic for my weekly article.

            This is actually a repeat article.  I've written about this notion before, but I've got a new wrinkle on the idea.  And that's enough to warrant a new article.  Oh, and by the way this is the best possible week to discuss this idea.  At the beginning of parshat Va'era we have the four languages of redemption (Exodus 6:6-7), which become the four cups of wine at our annual Seder.  These four terms (v'hotzeiti, and I will take out; v'hitzalti, and I will save; v'go'alti, and I will redeem; v'lakachti, and I will take) represent four stages in the exodus process, and they are: the stopping of work, the departure from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea, and the epiphany at Sinai.  The third step corresponds to the word v'go'alti, which means redemption, and that third step of crossing the Sea is the central event of this week's Torah reading. 

            So, it's a good week for redemption.  But what is redemption?  Here's what I wrote five years ago:  When you check the Random House Dictionary, redeem is defined initially as an economic term deriving from the Latin re to repeat something and emere to purchase.  So, in finance it means to return ownership or status to an original condition.  Only in the ninth and final entry do we get the theological meaning:  to deliver from sin and its consequences by means of a sacrifice offered for the sinner.  In my opinion I like the economic meaning better.  I feel strongly that redemption is a change of status, always to a better condition, and, generally, to a former status.  In Egypt we returned to a free state with loyalty to God.  This position had already been achieved by the Patriarchs; we were reclaiming a lost spiritual standing.

            Okay, so that's what I wrote before.  I would like to add that the dictionary definition is really the Christian use of the term.  We call deliverance from sin, kapara or atonement.  Oh, well.  But the critical question is:  In what way was redemption achieved at the Crossing of the Sea?  Most of us would suggest, I think, that redemption was achieved upon stepping out of Egypt, but that's not the rabbinic opinion.  What was there in the reaction to the amazing wonder of seeing the Sea split which changed those Jews in a profound way?

            I believe that the answer is in that great poem called shirat ha-yam or Song of the Sea.  The greatest pronouncement within that text is:  zeh keili vi'anveihu or 'This is my God, and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2).'  That last phrase is very difficult to translate, because there is an argument about the root of that third word.  Is it based on the word for 'house (nava)' or the word for 'beautify (na'eh)?'  In other words is the Jewish nation proclaiming that we must house God (by building the Holy Temple) or are we saying that we must beautify our God (by doing mitzvoth in the most delightful way)?  It could be one or both.  I neither know nor care. It doesn't make any difference because the redeemed state is achieved when the individual understands that he/she can contribute to God's work in this world.  That's an amazing status to comprehend and then to attain.  The redeemed person grasps the truth that she/he matters to God and to the world.  When I realize that I can make a difference, then I've begun to be redeemed.

            As the continuation of our story painfully informs us, even the redeemed can fall out of the ranks.  It didn't take long before the Jews were complaining and kvetching about the food, about the water, about the deluxe desert accommodations.  But that doesn't diminish the reality that redemption was achieved at that profound moment by the shores of the Sea.

            Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said:  God is in need of man for the attainment of His ends, and religion, as Jewish tradition understands it, is a way of serving these ends, of which we are in need, even though we may not be aware of them, ends which we must learn to feel the need of.  Life is a partnership of God and man.

            When we see ourselves as partners with God we have discovered the idea of redemption.  Redemption isn't about grace granted by another, as Christians assert, redemption is attained by a leap of action (not faith) to bring Godliness into our realm. We must perform those acts which further God's agenda.  Then we are redeemed individuals.

            We Jews continue to await the geula shaleima, the final and complete redemption, when every human strives to fulfill God's will.  But we shouldn't anticipate this goal by sitting on our hands and expect deus ex machina.  We must act in ways which bring grandeur to God and awareness to mankind.  Redemption begins with each person proclaiming:  This is my God, and I will do whatever it takes to increase Divine Glory!