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Four Redemption

Pesach 5776/ 23 April 2016

April 25, 2016

During my second year in Chicago, I helped start a RESOLVE peer-led infertility support group at Anshe Emet, a project that grew out of Rebecca’s and my struggles, through the past decade, to build our family in the face of an infertility diagnosis. I knew from personal experience that while we often talk of “infertility” as a general concept, that manner of speaking glosses over the enormous range of challenges that might be involved. For some, the difficulties begin with conception; others conceive easily but experience a pattern of pregnancy loss; and still others face the difficult specter of genetic diseases that force heart-wrenching decisions about whether to allow a pregnancy to continue. Beyond the wide range of physiological differences, each person’s emotional and spiritual response further complicates the equation. There were months when the participants in the RESOLVE group seemed to have almost nothing in common other than their frustrated desire to bear children. Still, over time, I did see one common concern emerge again and again, no matter the person’s specific circumstances: the sense of being “stuck,” of having no way to move forward, no prospect for a different, better future.

Indeed, I think this is a universal human experience: when we face adversity – whether in our families, at work, or within ourselves – it can often feel overwhelming and insurmountable. We can’t imagine that tomorrow will be any different than today. We can get so stuck in the mire of the present situation that we even feel beyond help. Friends and loved ones reach out with the best of intentions, but because we cannot envision a way beyond where we are, we won’t – or can’t – accept their help. How can we free ourselves from this way of thinking so that we can move forward?

This is precisely the question that the Exodus story is meant to address. Consider the Israelites, who have been slaves for two hundred ten years. Their situation is unbearable; the Torah tells us that the Egyptians “ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service.”[1] The slavery has gone on for so long that the Israelites have lost all hope; even when they groan under the load imposed by the Egyptians, they don’t direct their cries of suffering to God or to anyone else. The Torah tells us that “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God, and God heard their groaning,”[2] but only because God was listening — not because they called to God. The Israelties can no longer imagine that things could be different than they are. They are stuck, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

But the Exodus story also shows us how we can break this pattern, get “unstuck,” and move on with our lives. We learn[3] that the four cups of wine at the Seder are a symbol for the four expressions of redemption in the message God gives Moses for the Israelites:

לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי ה’ וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵֽעֲבֹֽדָתָם וְגָֽאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִֽים: וְלָֽקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵֽא־לֹהִים וִֽידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱ־לֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָֽיִם:

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.[4] 

Four expressions of redemption: (1) וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will bring you out;” (2) וְהִצַּלְתִּי, “I will deliver you;” (3) וְגָֽאַלְתִּי, “I will redeem you;” and (4) וְלָֽקַחְתִּי, “I will take you.”

The 16th-century Polish Rabbi Ephraim Solomon of Luntshits, in his classic commentary Kli Yakar,[5] points out that these four expressions of redemption correspond to the four levels of exile described in God’s prophecy to Abraham at the ברית בין הבתרים, the “Covenant Between the Pieces”: יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַֽרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, “Know for certain that your offspring will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will be slaves there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.”[6] According to Kli Yakar, the first and least severe form of exile is that “your offspring will be strangers” — people who are on the outside of society, cut off from normal social interaction. Worse than that, the Israelites will also be “in a land that is not theirs,” disconnected from God’s presence because they stand outside their homeland, the place where they most easily feel connected. Moreover, they “will be slaves there” — yet another level of degradation, since an ordinary stranger still has freedom and control over his own time and work. Finally, and worst of all, God reveals that the Israelites “will be afflicted,” since affliction goes far beyond the ordinary burdens of slavery.

Taken together, these four levels of exile — being a stranger, disconnected from God’s presence, enslaved, and afflicted — more than explain why, after two centuries, the Israelites are thoroughly stuck. And the distinct qualities of these four levels — each worse than the one before — illustrate why God’s promise of redemption to Moses and the Israelitesmust be stated as a four-fold redemption. Kli Yakar explains that each articulation of redemption comes to undo one of the levels of exile, beginning with the most painful. וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” — releasing the Israelites from the harshest conditions, following a midrash that the Israelites were released from their work after the first plague. Then, וְהִצַּלְתִּי, “I will deliver you from slavery to them,” marks the end of the slavery itself and the beginning of the Israelites’ freedom of movement. Next, וְגָֽאַלְתִּי, “I will redeem you,” God takes the Israelites out of being strangers. For a stranger has no one to support him in a time of need; but in redeeming us from Egypt, God became that support we needed so desperately. And finally, וְלָֽקַחְתִּי, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” — God brings us back into relationship with the divine, and ultimately back to our homeland.

The lesson of the Exodus story is that in order to move forward, we need to think differently about what redemption might look like. In those times when we feel “stuck,” we are looking for a switch we can flip, a button we can press, to set everything right. But as the story of our ancestors shows, when we’re stuck we can’t simply push everything aside all at once; we need to work our way out, intentionally, deliberately, in stages.

In the first year of my infertility support group, shortly before Pesah, a woman shared a reflection that underscored the importance of this process. At that point, she had struggled for five years to conceive a child, and talked about her intense feeling of loss for all she had hoped to have by then — several children, a boisterous and growing family — a dream that seemed to be fading slowly. She lacked so much that she had hoped for, and the longer she spent exploring treatment options and the more months that passed without a pregnancy, the more she felt stuck.

But then she explained that she had found a new perspective: “Just let me have one child, and then we’ll talk about the rest.” She was not giving up on the larger picture of her dreams, or even adjusting her horizons; instead, she pulled her focus back from the big picture to look only at the next stage of her redemption: one child, now; everything else, sometime later.

In this way we can also understand how our telling of the Exodus story at the Seder ends: with Dayyenu. Many of us struggle to understand the point of Dayyenu — if God had only taken us out of Egypt but not fed us in the wilderness; fed us in the wilderness, but not given us the Torah; given us the Torah but not taken us to our homeland — would any of thatreally have been enough for us? And we’re right to say it would not have been enough. But when we understand redemption not as an on/off switch, an instantaneous solution to all our problems, but as a process that unfolds in stages, stages that alleviate some problems while leaving others unresolved, then we can see the song differently. When I am a slave in Egypt, however much I might hope for in the grand scheme of things, what matters now is to get out — dayyenu. And once I’m out, just feed me, dayyenu. We close the Exodus story in the haggadah with Dayyenu so we remember how to ask for redemption: “Just give me this one thing, the thing that I need most right now, and then, after that, we’ll talk about the rest.” Each year, as we revisit the Exodus story, God’s four expressions of redemption remind us that true deliverance comes in stages, one by one.

[1]        Exodus 1:13-14.

[2]        Exodus 2:23-24.

[3]        Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 10.1 [37c]; Genesis Rabbah 88.5.

[4]        Exodus 6:6-7.

[5]        Kli Yakar, Exodus 6:6.

[6]        Genesis 15:13.

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