LIBERATION PROCEEDS IN STAGES

This week's Parasha, Va'eira, was written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University of Los Angeles, California.

Thoughts on Anti-Semitism and the Future of Humanity: Thoughts for Parashat Shemot

One of the characteristics of youth is impatience. While older adults are tempered by the realities of human passivity and inertia, young people agitate for immediate change and progress. Unwilling to concede that society moves very slowly, unable to accept human suffering and callousness, our colleges remain centers of agitation and protest as young people attempt to translate their dreams of a redeemed humanity into a living reality.

That same impatience must have struck young Moses as well. Watching his people suffer under the strains of Egyptian slavery must have been a tortuous agony. We know that Moses, in his youth, was so passionate about his people and justice, that he did not hesitate to intervene to redress grievances and to assist the weak and the needy. Like so many moderns, Moses must have often despaired of divine assistance. After all, the Jews had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, and there was no sign of the Egyptian dynasty relenting at all.

In the midst of this youthful zeal, Moses encounters God, the Ancient Holy One. In the process of liberating the Jewish people, God also teaches a lesson in persistence. Liberation comes in stages, not all at once. Permanent change in human nature requires time, patience and determination. Cosmetic alterations may come easily, but permanent and significant growth emerge over a long period, and only with great effort.

In today's Torah portion, God tells the Jewish people, "I am the Lord, I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God." (Shemot/ Exodus 6: 6-8)

These four verses of liberation, "I will free you . . . I will deliver you . . . I will redeem you . . . I will take you" became the single paradigmatic emblem of Jewish redemption. According to Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah, "The Sages ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Pesach to correspond with these four expressions, in order to fulfill the verse, 'I raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of the Lord (Psalm 116: 13).’"

Thus, each cup of wine at the Seder represents a different aspect of the process of liberation. According to the Ramban (13th Century Spain), each aspect of deliverance marks an advance toward the goal of complete freedom.

Thus, the first step, "I will free you" refers to the cessation of external bondage. The sine qua non for any human freedom is that external oppression cease. The absence of outside pressure is not in itself freedom.

The next step, "I will deliver you" refers to leaving the sovereignty and control of the former oppressors. Remaining under their influence, even if no longer under their servitude, precludes true liberation.

The third stage of freedom, "I will redeem you" involves a reorientation of values. It is through the mighty acts which accomplished the exodus from Egypt, the signs and wonders, that the Israelites came to understand that human pomp and pretension were unable to provide ultimate meaning and value. The temptations of Egyptian society were, in the final analysis, mere glitter and distraction from what made life ultimately significant.

The moment of redemption was that time when Israel realized that ultimate worth -- the goal of the religious endeavor -- came in serving something Ultimate, rather than furthering any human conceit.

The fourth stage of freedom, "I will take you to be My peoplerefers, according to the Bekhor Shor (12th Century, France), to the meeting of God and Israel at Mount Sinai.

Ultimately, freedom is much, much more than the absence of external restraint. Freedom is the ability to assume responsibility for one's own life and for one's community as well. We are most free, most fully human, when we help ourselves and others to live up to our best potential as caring human beings and as serious Jews.

Thus, the freedom of Torah -- the only true freedom that Jews can enjoy -- is a call to responsibility, toward spiritual adulthood. By assuming responsibility for the 'mitzvot,' by taking our place in the unbroken chain of Jewish observance, tradition and transmission, we renew the ancient process of liberation which our ancestors experienced in Egypt.

When each of us proceeds through the stages of liberation, we exchange the modern-day Pharaoh of materialism and the contemporary idolatry of the self with the purifying service of the Holy Blessed One and acts of love toward our fellow human beings. 

The process begins anew today. It calls to YOU.

Shabbat Shalom

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