Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Redemption not Salvation

In just two weeks, Jews the world over will sit down at their home tables and celebrate the Pesach Seder.  This holiday is known as “the time of our freedom” because at this time our ancestors were liberated by God from the power of Pharoah in ancient Egypt.  Yet “freedom” is only a part of the story.  The real theology of the holiday is Redemption.
Redemption is more difficult to understand than freedom.  What does it mean to be redeemed?  And why do we need redemption?  You see, for a rabbinic Jew, what happened to our ancestors happens to us.  What God promised to them is promised to us.  What God has done for them, God will do for us.  It is not about spiritual salvation, but physical redemption.
Redemption is one of those religious words that sounds good, so we leave it alone.  Like Moral, or Covenant. Sounds great, but what does it mean?
The Hebrew is “Ge’ulah”.  It can mean to save, to protect, or to redeem.  To redeem is something other than so save or to protect.  To redeem something is to recover ownership of it.  To redeem a person is to rescue or ransom them from evil or from evil people.  I can also redeem myself when I return to the core values which I have been breaking.  I redeem myself when I make up for past sin or error with good acts of attonement.  All three aspects of Ge’ulah, - Recovery of property, rescue, or attonement are present in this word Redemption:  which are we praying for?  The Passover holiday proclaims all three.
Ownership:  Am zu kanita – this nation, you God have acquired.  God owns us.  Pharoah stole us.  “I will show Pharoah who is God”.  And we are still God’s people in Egypt? God has acquired us, and our status in the world changed.  Pesach must be about knowing that we are God’s people and that brings with it responsibility, or no redemption will come.
Phsyical Protection – Saving: Egypt here is the suffering of all oppression.  The slave-wages laborer, the abused and unprotected immigrant, the abandoned or swindled elderly with no one to protect them. Pesach must be about action in just cause of human rights and dignity regardless of race, culture, language, gender, or religion.  Only in the cause of real and measurable redemption does Pesach make sense.
Attonement:. While the English word can be used to redeem oneself, it is not a rabbinic concept.  We do teshuvah.  We seek Kapparah – attonement.  Yet Pesach does have a sense of your own redemption about it.  In each generation we are challenged to think, feel, and believe that we ourselves each individually and as a group came out of Egypt. 
And in our day we have added one particular prayer to our observance where we talk about Redemption:  We say in the blessing after meals, Harachaman hu yevarekh et Medinat Yisrael, Reishit Tzmichat Ge’ulateinu.  God bless the State of Israel: the first flowering of our redemption.
Pesach is a festival of freedom to be sure.  Yet in the end, Pesach is an assertion that God calls, demands, and acts to redeem – to provide redemption.  It is physical, and it is spiritual.  It is personal, and it is communal.  And despite the fact that it comes from God, it depends on you.  And ultimately, it flowers in Israel to redeem the world.
A sweet and kosher Pesach for each of you.  L’shanah ha’ba’ah birushalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem.