Va’era: The road to redemption

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and 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. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord. (Shemot 6:6-8)

I rescued you, as birds immured
with stiff and withered wings; saved you
from believing that you still remained enslaved.

I showed you in abundant ways
that you were truly free, and
took you as My people in the covenant at Sinai.

I brought you to the land
and I yearn to see you fly.

In the beginning of Parashat Va’era, (Shemot 6:6-8) we read the “arba leshonot shel ge’ulah – the four expressions of redemption”: “I will free you…and deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you…I will bring you into the land“. The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that via these stages, God will take the people into a unique relationship with Him – for that is the ultimate goal of liberation. Finally, when He has brought them to their own land, they can “become the special people they are summoned to be. Only there will they have the duty and the opportunity to translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life and fashion the model society from which all nations will be able to learn…”

In a commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says “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.”

Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that these four expressions of liberation became the “single paradigmatic emblem of Jewish redemption.” In the Midrash, in Shemot Rabbah, we learn that the rabbis enacted the drinking of the four cups of wine on Seder night, the evening of the Festival of Freedom. Each cup corresponds with one of these four expressions of redemption, fulfilling the verse, “I will raise the cup of deliverance and call the name of the Lord.(Psalms 116:13).
So each cup of wine on this night represents a stage in the move towards freedom. According to the Ramban (c1194-1270), each stage of deliverance is a stepping stone on the way towards redemption.
The first stage, “I will free you – lit. I will take you out,” refers to physical freedom, being released from external slavery. However, Rabbi Shavit Artson notes, “The absence of outside pressure is not in itself freedom.”
Then comes “I will deliver you,” which is understood to mean that the Egyptians will no longer wield any power or authority over the Israelites. The third stage of freedom, “I will redeem you,” involves the attainment of emotional freedom. Before the people could reach the stage of entering a covenant with God (being “taken” as His people), they needed to undergo an inner transformation. Rabbi Shavit Artson describes this stage as “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 people,” refers to the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Shavit Artson continues, “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.”
He concludes, “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…”


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