(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the first stages in the great mission of Moses: liberating the People of Israel from Egypt. God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel, those enslaved in Egypt doing hard labor, what they can expect in the near future – redemption and being set free.
This redemption consisted of five stages, as we read in God’s words to Moses: “I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you... And I will take you to Me as a people...And I will bring you to the land....” (Exodus 6:6-8)
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), among the great biblical commentators of the previous century and the dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva in Russia, explained the five stages of redemption in his book Ha’amek She’eila (Delve into the Question): The first stage of the redemption was stopping the suffering.
Even after this ceased, they still had the status of slaves without rights; a status that was to change only in the second stage. The third stage in the redemption itself followed – being set free to be personally and nationally independent. The fourth stage was at Ma’amad Har Sinai when the entire Jewish nation experienced Divine revelation and received the Torah, becoming a “holy people unto the Lord.” The conclusion of the redemption was in the fifth stage, when the nation of Israel came to the Promised Land and established the Jewish nation’s independent and sovereign entity.
When we examine our situation today, in the 21st century, it seems like these five stages are behind us. We are no longer enslaved, we have personal and national independence, we have the Torah and we try to keep it, and the Land of Israel is flourishing with millions of Jews residing in it. Things are not perfect – we are still being persecuted by enemies wishing to destroy us, and the Temple is not standing – but we have much to be thankful for.
However, things were not always this pretty. The Jewish nation went through periods when man needed deep faith and tremendous optimism to sense the possibility of redemption. One of the most harrowing situations is described in a book by Rabbi Sinai Adler, a Holocaust survivor who moved to Israel and served as the chief rabbi of Ashdod. This is how he describes running the Passover Seder in the Mauthausen concentration camp: “After the evening roll call and before we went into the hut to sleep, we were allowed some time to wander around the open space in front of the huts. I asked one of the chaps to walk with me a bit, and while we were walking back and forth, we recited extracts from the Haggada by heart, as much as we could remember.
A unique Seder night, without matza or wine, without a festive meal during which all the members of the family reclined around one table, but rather a Seder of walking. Our bodies were humiliated and enslaved, but they could not enslave our spirits again... because in spite of everything, we felt that we were free.” (Sinai Adler, In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979) Later in the description he asks: “How were we able to celebrate liberation when we ourselves were in a more difficult situation than that of our forefathers in Egypt? What ‘redemption’ were we celebrating in the concentration camp?!” His incredible answer, full of tenacious faith typical of the Jewish nation, can serve as a basic text for every Jew. He writes as follows: “The three redemptions mentioned in the first verse – ‘I will take out, I will save you, I will redeem you’ that the Jewish nation merited in the Exodus from Egypt, were canceled during certain times throughout the generations. But the fourth redemption, ‘I will take you to Me as a people,’ is an eternal redemption that cannot be canceled no matter what the situation or the exile. We will forever remain the nation of the Blessed Be He, and we will forever remain His sons, whether He kisses us or hits us. A Father always stays a Father, even if sometimes we do not understand why he causes us pain.
“During that same Leil Haseder [Seder night] in the horrible concentration camp of Mauthausen, the first three redemptions did not exist. Not the taking or the saving or the redeeming. They were all totally and completely canceled. But the redemption that says ‘And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you,’ was firm and abiding even on that dark night.”
These powerful words, spoken by someone who experienced the terrible atrocity of the Holocaust with his body and soul, convey the story of the Jewish nation. The nation that always yearned for complete redemption, even in times of horrific darkness, always believed that redemption can never be canceled.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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