At her inauguration as the first woman president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, Rabbi Deborah Waxman chants from Exodus and teaches about redemption.
וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
“And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”
A people, enslaved for centuries, are suddenly freed by their oppressor. As fast as they can, they gather everything up and run toward freedom. They were right to rush. Pharoah has changed his mind, and sent his mighty army after the Israelites. The rag tag mass of people are on foot, clutching all their belongings, hustling their children along with them. The Egyptian soldiers are on chariots drawn by mighty horses, and are fast bearing down. The way forward is blocked by the sea. There it was, a promise of liberation, glimmering slightly, just as quickly extinguished. Hope is lost.
Have you ever felt a feeling of hopelessness? Sometimes hopelessness emerges from social structures, when all systems of authority are organized against us and there is no obvious way for us as individuals to change them. Racism, anti-immigration restrictions, punitive financial practices—institutional oppression is all around us. And sometimes hopelessness is personal, when our own world is closing in around us and it feels as if we have no options. Hopelessness is when a person with developmentally disabilities has his bus service cut, so he can no longer visit his father in his nursing home. Hopelessness is when another person is kicked out of her apartment, because she can no longer afford the rent. Hopelessness is one man’s struggle with addiction, and his fear of losing his job or his family or both if he admits to it. In Hebrew, the name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow place.” Hopelessness is a narrow place.
Suddenly everything changes. The sea parts. The former slaves rush forward to a new future. The Egyptians are swallowed up and that particular threat vanishes. The Israelites have been redeemed. And Miriam and the women and Moses and all the people begin to dance and make music and sing praises to God.
This moment—yetzi’at mitzrayim, the crossing of the sea—is held up in Jewish tradition as a paradigm. As a people, we felt crushed—we were beaten down, we were enslaved to a harsh master, we were trapped with no hope—and God redeemed us. This moment is highlighted in many ways. In every scroll of the Torah, the song at the sea is written differently from the text around it. The script itself shows the Israelites marching through the columns of the waves, and the words are chanted to a special trope. When the rabbis created the liturgy that became our siddur, they focused on the concept of ge’ulah, redemption. Twice each day, we pray for liberation from oppression, quoting from the song at the sea that Moses and the Israelites sang [sing mi kamokha]. Rashi, a medieval commentator, suggests that in our morning prayers, we are remembering this liberation from slavery, and in the evening we are praying for future redemption from all suffering. In the Shabbat evening Kiddush, we sing zekher litziyat mitzrayim, we intertwine our freedom from slavery with the creation of the cosmos. And we dedicate an entire holiday to telling the story about how we once were slaves and now we are free. At Passover, we teach our children the obligations arising out of freedom.
Today, what is redemption? What does Judaism in our day have to teach us in our lives about redemption? This is the question I want to explore with you. I want to unpack some of the ways that redemption is complicated. I want to raise up the ways that I think redemption can help us to be most meaningfully Jewish and most fully human in today’s world.
The story of redemption I just told, the story in the Torah, is a story of miracles. The book of Exodus tells us that God intervened in nature by causing the 10 plagues and then parting the sea. In doing so, God also intervened in history, forging the creation of bnai yisrael, the Israelites, the Jewish people. Throughout our history, in the face of oppression, Jews yearned for redemption on the scale of the exodus to happen once again. But the ancient rabbis warned against any human activism to bring about redemption. Following the disastrous Bar Kochba Revolt, they expressly taught that redemption could only happen miraculously, beyad hazakah uvizeroa netuyah, through God’s strong hand. When the rabbis created the haggadah, they made no mention of Moses or Aaron or Miriam; at Passover, the haggadah turns the focus exclusively to God.
So, in the classical tradition, what’s the human role? Exodus teaches that the Israelites marched swiftly from the sea to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah through revelation. Adonai did not free us from slavery to do anything we wanted; we were freed to enter into service to God the Redeemer. The revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Torah, was a covenant between God and the Israelites. According to the ancient rabbis, our work is to uphold the covenant between Adonai and the people Israel by observing mitzvot, as revealed in the Torah and as interpreted through halakhah. The rabbis taught that observance of halakhah was the only Jewish path toward redemption; we were powerless by any other means. The Hasidim have taken this idea the furthest; in their thinking, redemption is an interior journey toward liberation that is achieved through the mitzvot. To this day, Chabad teaches that if every Jew fully observes Shabbat in a halakhic manner, the messiah will come to bring that final and complete redemption.
This is where modernity starts to complicate things. Redemption is based on the miraculous and must be mediated through supernatural revelation. Hmm. Our ancestors accepted this as “true,” but this is a challenge for many of us today, and has been for many Jews since the Enlightenment. For the last 300 years, most organized expressions of Judaism have been asking and re-asking the question how can we embrace scientific thought and maintain a religious perspective? Reconstructionists ask how can we set aside supernaturalism and retain the power and inspiration of God the Redeemer?
Asking these kinds of questions is not easy, especially if you prefer simplicity. Some step back from asking. Some born Jews choose an entirely secular or cultural identity, and set aside any religious identity and all the challenges that it can bring. Some resolve any tension by exiting the Jewish community completely and allowing themselves to be absorbed into mainstream society. Some segregate their religious and non-religious lives and don’t seek to harmonize them. Others segregate themselves as much as possible from modernity to live as much as possible a premodern Jewish life.
Reconstructionist Jews—we don’t need to resolve the tension. We revel in it. We constantly ask how can we retain the power of the Torah in this modern era? How do we stay in conversation with our ancestors in ways that can be meaningful and full of integrity for us, and compelling to our children? We ask again and again because we presume that the answers will change, are always changing. We understand that we are empowered to make certain these changing answers are substantive and relevant. We insist that it is possible to retain redemption in the modern era. We can draw strength from the power of this story and use that strength to work, as co-creators with the divine, to bring about a redeemed world.
We may revel, but we also know that this is not easy. It takes work to embrace the rigorous questioning that a rational approach requires and to presume that we can end with a stance of belief. But we choose to believe—in some version of the divine, in some vision of the Jewish people—because belief affirms a beneficent universe, even as we witness horrors. Belief fuels optimism, even as we struggle in the trenches. We believe our ancestors experienced the divine at Sinai and recorded what they experienced in the Torah. That recording was tempered by their human limitations, heavily shaped by their social context. We also believe that revelation is continuous. It is our work, as Reconstructionist Jews, to discern revelation and enact the covenant between God and the Jewish people in ways that are meaningful for today’s world. We do this work always remembering our own personal and social limitations, always seeking to recapture that redeeming moment at the sea.
So, in service of this sacred and ongoing conversation, I ask you: What could redemption mean to us? What should redemption mean today?
Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel laureate, poet of another people’s oppression, wrote:
History says, Don’t hopeon this side of the grave.But then, once in a lifetimethe longed for tidal waveof justice can rise up,and hope and history rhyme.
Progressive religious people walk a fine and even poetic line between rationalism and belief. We believe that God is in the rhyming. In this age when society careens between secularism and fundamentalism, we need to make the case for progressive religion. I suggest that a religious perspective invites us to ask ultimate questions. Why are we, all of us, here? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do while I am here? A religious perspective presumes that the answers are more than individual answers. They are moderated and interpreted through community. This is community that is both horizontal—all the people we encounter every day, in real and virtual settings—and vertical—our ancestors—biological and chosen—who came before us, our children—biological and chosen—who will follow. A progressive religious perspective presumes that the community and its answers are constantly evolving—and that these changes can be good, they can be infused with the divine.
When the Enlightenment began, and the Age of Science and Reason, humanism became a major focus. The Enlightenment wrenched our orientation away from the divine and focused it on human capacity. In our day, a religious perspective offers a critical corrective, reminding us that that we should not believe that we humans are the ultimate arbiters: we know what horrors we can perpetrate. We must have limits, whether we believe they are imposed by God or whether we willingly self-impose them. The task of progressive Judaism is identifying what are those values so worthwhile that we should voluntarily submerge our individual desires to them.
I am religious, even though I have so many opportunities not to be. I am religious because of this invitation to ask ultimate questions. Why is my religion Judaism? I am Jewish not only because I was born Jewish. I am Jewish because I believe, after the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan and others, that being Jewish enables me, even requires me, to be fully human and teaches me how. Being Jewish helps me to understand, from centuries of teachings in multiple voices, that being human is not about being solitary or even only tribal. Judaism teaches me that I am deeply interconnected to all living creatures. With all the agency I possess, I am a part of, I am responsible for the well-being of other living creatures, for the planet as a whole. Science aids me in this religious understanding; again and again science demonstrates our deep interconnectedness and mutual interdependence.
So here’s my take on redemption in the modern era. We acknowledge our creatureliness, that we are limited and imperfect. At the same time, we acknowledge the immense intelligence and agency that we humans possess. I take to heart the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa. He taught that we should carry two notes in our pockets. One should have the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” The other should say: “For my sake was the world created.” We are co-creators with the divine; we once were slaves and now are free; we willingly assume the obligation to work for the liberation of others. How we fulfill this obligation will look different for each of us, but for all of us, we can and must make “hope and history rhyme.”
All this time, I have been talking about ge’ulah, redemption on a collective level, distinct from Zionism, which is a modern political movement expressed in the idiom of nationalism. I am insisting that there remains the potential for a powerful collective, transnational experience that is deeply meaningful to Jews and deeply significant to the wider world. There is obviously great resonance here. In North America, liberal Jews have embraced the kabbalistic concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, and we have raised it up to the level of a commandment: we understand that the world is broken and that we are obligated to repair it.
And, within this collective movement, there must be space for the individual. The rise of individualism is another hallmark of modernity. The Jewish community cannot hold to only one standard for all people. We are promoting communalism, even as it is counter-cultural. Within communalism, we must make space for individual experience. We have to make space for different beliefs—including people who don’t share my framing of religion. We have to make space for different experiences, including the experience of profound oppression that makes my optimistic interpretation of redemption look naive.
Yet I insist that a vision of redemption is available to and is even necessary for everyone. All of us, we can live with humility and awareness of our own agency. If we can approach each moment, even the most oppressive ones, with the possibility of holiness, then we may come to know that even the worst moment is temporary and that its passage may give us momentary redemption. We may notice the light on a plant that helps us to move to a place of greater internal expansiveness. We may interact with a kind person who helps us to remember, or even to know for the first time, that it is possible to act kindly. And for those of us fortunate enough to live lives relatively free from oppression, hopefully we will find our individual passions—in the arts, the sciences, the field of sports, the helping professions—passions that make our souls sing, and that help us to be the most creative and most fully human and to share our gifts with others. This is redemption.
Redemption on the individual level is yeshu’ah, usually translated as salvation. Mordecai Kaplan was deeply interested in both categories, ge’ulah and yeshu’ah, collective and individual salvation. Kaplan’s favorite name for God was “the Power that makes for salvation.”
My Reform colleague, Rabbi Ruth Sohn marries individual and collective redemption powerfully in her imagination of Miriam’s song:
I, Miriam, stand at the seaAnd turnTo face the desertStretching endless andStill.My eyes are dazzledThe sky brilliant blueSunburnt sands unyielding white.My hands turn to dove wings.My armsReachfor the skyand I want to singthe song rising inside me.My mouth openI stop.Where are the words?Where the melody?In a moment of panicMy eyes go blind.Can I take a stepWithout knowing aDestination?Will I falterWill I fallWill the ground sink away from under me?
The song still unformed—How can I sing?To take the first step—To sing a new song—Is to close one’s eyesAnd diveInto unknown waters.For a moment knowing nothing risking all—But then to discover
The waters are friendlyThe ground is firm.And the song—The song rises again.Out of my mouth
Come words lifting the wind.And I hearFor the firstThe songThat has been in my heartSilentUnknownEven to me.
Sohn evokes a collective moment in the Jewish experience to narrate a personal journey out of mitzrayim, a narrow place. Mirroring the Hasidim, Miriam’s journey here is interior, and ultimately transformative, for herself and for her people. We are all invited on our own redemptive journeys.
It takes work to be a Reconstructionist. It takes work to make space for other people’s interior journeys, to truly embrace diversity, to learn across differences, to live together, in varying degrees of comfort and discomfort, and to embrace this as a collective process, a part of the Jewish civilization and the human experience. It takes work, and also courage, to put aside hopelessness and act—in ways both individual and collective—to create to a redeemed world.
For me, being Jewish gives me the groundedness of tradition. It orients me toward a sense of wonder and awe. It opens me to the newness of a creation that unfolds again each day (mekhadesh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh berashit). Being Jewish fortifies me to be unafraid of the unknown, or to be afraid, and venture forth anyway. It gives me the companionship of other people on a similar journey.
So I ask you: What are we being redeemed from? What are we being redeemed for? Your answer, I am certain, is different from mine. Tell me, I want to know. I want to comfort you in your suffering, in the narrow space in which you dwell. I want to be inspired by your courage, and encourage you to be courageous. I want to learn with you, and journey with you. I want to be enlarged by your crossing over, out into merkhav yah, the wide open expanse filled with the divine. I want to sing with you, and through our joined voices praise the Source of song, the Source of courage, so that together we can create communities working to bring redemption.
End by singing together psalm 96:
שִׁ֣ירוּ לַ֭יהוָה שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ שִׁ֥ירוּ לַ֝יהוָ֗ה כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃שִׁ֣ירוּ לַ֭יהוָה בָּרֲכ֣וּ שְׁמ֑וֹ בַּשְּׂר֥וּ מִיּֽוֹם־לְ֝י֗וֹם יְשׁוּעָתֽוֹ׃
Shiru ladonay shir hadashShiru ladonay kol ha’aretzShiru ladonay barkhu shmoBasru miyom leyom yeshu’ato