(Prepared for my Ordination Ceremony January 15, 2017)
I had the privilege of sharing the Ordination stage with four extraordinary women. We came from a variety of backgrounds, and each of us had a story to tell. Each of us shared a little about our paths to that day. But more importantly, we spoke of our visions for the future.
We are a living in troubled, turbulent times. As we took on the mantle of becoming rabbis and cantor, we stepped forward with both fears and hopes, and a deep desire to serve
בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶך
with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our might.
The week of our Ordination, Jews everywhere began reading the book of Exodus, Shemot in Hebrew, in the Torah. The word shemot simply means “names,” for this core narrative of our people’s journey, begins with a list of names. “These are the names of the Children of Yisrael who went into Egypt with Yaakov.” In Parashat Shemot, not only people are named, but promises as well. Five women being ordained. Five Promises in the Torah.
That afternoon, we five women all shared our names, and five words – naming and exploring the five promises, which Torah teaches us that God spoke. These five promises become the five themes of the liberation of our people:
I will take you out,
I will save you,
I will redeem you,
I will bring you to me, and
I will bring you into The land.
Each of us chose one of these five themes of liberation. Mine was Gaalti, the third promise.
וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים.
“I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through great/extraordinary chastisements/judgements (also translated as miracles!!!).”
Gaalti: I will redeem you.
The third promise. This promise is the Third Cup of wine of the Pesach (Passover) Seder. This is the cup of redemption. Geulah … but let’s explore. What might Geulah, redemption, mean for us? Redeemed, saved, delivered? More specifically, what does it mean to be redeemed, liberated, delivered, saved by the Holy One? From what? For what?
During my Spiritual Health practicum at a residential care facility for very frail elders, I had to laugh when a resident’s response to my request to visit with her was: “Sure, as long as you don’t ask me if I’ve been saved. I hate that!” We went on to develop a warm relationship. But that encounter resonated with me. Saved? What does that mean?
Gaalti: I will redeem you.
Geulah, the redemptive power of God, is a key affirmation of Jewish theology, central to many of our holidays and key to much of our liturgy. Clearly in the context of this phrase, Gaalti: opens a next stage in God’s plan of bringing our People out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) the Narrow Place, out from slavery. This third promise is an important turning point in our story. With וְ Gaalti the focus shifts to “freedom to…” We leave Mitzrayim to become God’s people.
The Haggadah, the great “Telling” that is the core narrative of the Pesach Seder, and most other common references to this phrase, typically offer only the first part of the phrase: וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm!”
But this Geulah, this redemption, is a two-part process. וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים. “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm! AND through great/extraordinary acts of chastisements and judgements.”
Redemption is not simply a hand-out. It’s also a time of profound witness and challenge. Redemption comes with Mishpatim G’dolim “great/extraordinary acts of chastisements and judgements.”
We might imagine, or at least wish, that redemption, deliverance, salvation … these powerful moments of total psycho-spiritual transformation –– might feel good. Well, perhaps not so much …
13th century Spanish Kabbalist, the RaMBaN, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman
וגאלתי אתכם כי יעשה בהם שפטים עד שיאמרו המצרים הנה לך ישראל בפדיון נפשנו, כי טעם גאולה כענין מכר:
“AND I WILL REDEEM THEM: God will bring such judgments upon the Egyptians that they will say to God: “Here, You want them so much … and we’re suffering so much … You take the Israelites as a redemption for our lives.” The meaning of the word Geulah (redemption) here is close to meaning mecher (sale), [as if God is saying to us : “ I will buy you from the Egyptians].”
And the meaning of the expression, “with an outstretched arm,” is that God’s arm will be extended over us until God takes us out from Egypt.”
The chastisements and judgments land on “the Egyptians”, but for us they were “miracles.” The peshat, the plain meaning, of the text is that the Holy One redeemed us by ‘lending us a hand’ and by making “their” lives so miserable, that they were willing to trade our freedom for their lives. This is the peshat; but what is the sod, the hidden meaning? Is there another lesson for us today?
We are taught that the curse of slavery in the Narrow Place was a pre-condition. Slavery made it possible for us to truly comprehend freedom. What if the שְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים are what we also go through to achieve Geulah? We are not immune to harsh realities, and we participate in our own redemption. The redemptive possibility is always a partnership between us and God. This is the paradox that we walk between Divine sovereignty and our own human agency. The Holy One stretches out a hand but we must do the work.
Redemption, like freedom, isn’t free. There is a cost. In the Exodus story, the Egyptians paid a high price for our redemption. But if we look deeper, what this phrase, וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים, reminds us is that in partnership with God we too pay a price for our redemption. Only when we are willing to learn what we need to learn, will God’s hand-out lead to Geulah, our redemption.
At this time in this country, I ask myself this question often. What do I need to learn? What is the hidden lesson? What does everything that is so hard about what is happening in our world, the lachatz, the squeeze of our times, come to teach me? And how will I, right now, despite the cost, reach out my hand to the outstretched arm that offers redemption to our world and play my part.