Va’eira – Four Stages of Liberation

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This Shabbat marks two weeks into the  New Year in accord with the western secular calendar, the one by which a majority of Jewish people worldwide attempt to conduct their normal life’s business.  Many have  already s broken  the past year New Year’s resolutions; work harder, work less, spend less money, make more money, eat better, exercise more, swear less, etc. In reality the civil New Year is rarely a time for serious reflection, rather a brief interlude in the tumult of life, a short lived celebration that often provides a “farewell tour” for the very behaviors that we have flippantly resolved to abolish, a not too subtle reminder that we really don’t want to change. So we are free only to make the same resolutions a year later, ten pounds heavier and 365 days closer to our expiration date. Much like the ancient pagans, we subscribe to calendar whereby we are presumably bound by the endless cipher of nature’s repetitive cycles, and an unassailable wall of inevitability limits our human potential.

The biblical calendar on the other hand, though cyclical, is seen as an advancing spiral, moving toward the consummation of the Creator’s perfect design. Therefore we are given endless opportunities to redeem and be redeemed. The exodus from Egypt is but the beginning of a journey toward total liberation from any and all limits to our potential as individuals, and the full potential of humanity as a whole. We are free to begin the journey anew at any time; hence we liturgically celebrate Passover in the spring, but relive its urgency throughout the year.

The Torah portion for Shabbat Va’eira provides a reading pregnant with possibilities for liberation.

I am the Lord, I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will 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. (Exodus 6:6-7)

According to midrash shemot rabbah the sages ordained four cups to be drank on the eve of Pesach to correspond with these four expressions of freedom, in order to fulfill the verse 13 of Psalm 116, “I raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of the Lord.” According to Rambam each aspect of deliverance marks an advance toward the goal of complete unbridled freedom. Though these promises of freedom find initial fulfillment in Israel as a model of humanity, their penultimate reality is in the renewal of all humanity. Therefore they can be understood as a process of renewal for every individual as well.

I will free you – The first step of freedom is getting out of the circumstances of bondage. Long before Israel left Egypt, God had already effected their liberation. The people just couldn’t see it. They complained that Moses had made things worse by challenging the power and authority of Pharaoh. The God of Israel had already made known His resolve to set them free but they just couldn’t get it. Pharaoh’s advisors had already thrown in the towel and the King of Egypt was stubbornly defending his own goal line, and still the children of Israel were having trouble stepping out in faith.

How many women stay in abusive relationships? How often do people accept dead end jobs with abusive bosses, failing to take steps toward change? Why do people procrastinate avoiding important work until they assure certain failure? What possesses an alcoholic to take one more drink or a compulsive gambler to go back into a casino? The answer to all of these questions is the same. Fear blinds us to the light of God’s redemptive power.

When the army of Aram was pursuing Elisha the prophet, Elisha affected the miracle of blinding them with a great light. But first he asked his servant Gehazi what he saw. Gehazi answered that he saw angels surrounding the mountain to protect them. The lesson learned is that the saving power of Hashem is always about us, but only those with the consciousness to see are liberated by His light.

I will deliver you – God’s deliverance then is realized when we are willing to leave the sovereignty and control of former oppressors and gain a new paradigm for life. The mystical book of Zohar understands the Hebrew word for burdens – sivlot– to mean tolerance. What was the worst part of slavery? The Israelites became accustomed to it. So often we allow ourselves to remain in oppressive circumstances because the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t.

When the children of Israel were in the dessert they complained about the conditions under which they journeyed. Under the leadership of Moses they had seen the sea split, the mountain shake, and they had never gone hungry. Yet ironically they cried out for the high life that they lived in Egypt. Discontent often blooms from the seeds of delusional tolerance for the low safe bar that we not only learn to live with, but that we call success. Well-adjusted people are open to well meaning correction and intense self-evaluation. There is nothing more limiting than deflection of criticism.

I will redeem you – involves a reorientation of values. It was through the signs and wonders which accomplished the exodus from Egypt that the children of Israel came to understand that human pomp and pretension were unable to provide ultimate meaning and value. If only they had known that the promised chastisements were not only for the Egyptians they might never have stepped out into the waters of the Reed Sea. Israel discovered as they transverse the Sinai wilderness what most of us come to realize as we journey through life’s vicissitudes, change is difficult. But it is worth it!

Once we realize that God has better for us how can we stay precisely where we are? What is really remarkable is that the wisdom of providence prevented our ancestors from making any real geographic progress until they became reoriented. So often I have seen people try to heal their suffering lives with geographic cures. Still laboring under the presumption that they need not change they blame the region, state, city, community, school or congregation for their woes. So they move. Unfortunately they are always forced to take the same person with them. Fresh starts rock, but only if they are really fresh!

I will take you to be My people – Hold onto the hope that God has given you, the hope of adoption, and the promise of real purpose. We often led to think of Eretz Yisrael as our entitlement, the prize, and Torah as “the Law, the road map to get us there. Yet both are described the same in Torah. The Hebrew term for heritage – morashah – is used only twice, the first time in Exodus 6:8 to refer to the land of Israel. The other occasion is in Deuteronomy 33:4 in connection with the giving of Torah. Both are indicative of our identity, as a renewed and liberated people, under the care and guidance of the Creator.

Israel was liberated from the service of Pharaoh to serve the one true God. True biblical freedom never describes the inherent right to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we wan, with who ever want. Rav Sha’ul declares that all things are permissible, but only with the caveat that not all things are profitable. A life well lived is one lived for the higher purposes of Hashem. A life lived for self is one still in bondage. Ultimately; freedom is the ability to assume responsibility for one’s own life and for one’s own community as well. We are most free, most fully human, when we help ourselves and others live up to our potential as caring human beings.

When each of us proceeds through the stages of liberation, we exchange the modern day Pharaoh of materialism, and the contemporary idolatry of self, for the purifying service of the Holy Blessing One, and acts of love toward our fellow human beings. The process begins anew today. It is calling to you. Happy New Year!

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