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Expressions Of Redemption
Mon, 12/23/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting: Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:17 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 6: 2 ­ 9: 35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:23
Havdalah: 5:21 p.m.

“I shall remove you from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you. ... and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people and I will be a God to you. … And I shall bring you to the land which I swore to give … to you as a heritage.” [Exodus 6:6­8].

This most stirring passage presents the four expressions of redemption, the source for our four cups of wine at the seder. (The fifth cup, or Elijah’s cup, refers to the Divine promise to “bring you to the land”). And this biblical text tells us the coming attractions when it speaks of God’s redemption by means of His “outstretched arm and with great judgments.” It is referring to the supernatural Ten Plagues against the Egyptians; the splitting of the Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds), which drowned the Egyptians and enabled the Hebrews to escape freely onto dry land; and the Revelation at Sinai, when God took the Hebrews to Himself as His covenantal people.

As we shall see, the expressions of Divine Redemption set the stage of contrast between our biblical history and post­biblical history. In the earlier period, God played the star role (as it were) in effectuating our national freedom and in establishing our national constitution to form us as a “holy nation and kingdom of Kohen­teachers” to all humanity [Ex. 19:6]. In the latter period, during our second commonwealth (Talmudic times) and in post­Talmudic history leading up to Redemption, it is Israel who must take the responsibility and assume proactive leadership.

The Talmud [Shabbat 88a] teaches as follows: “And they stood at the bottom of (tahtit) the mountain” [Ex 19:17]. Rabbi Abdimi bar Hama-bar-Hasa said, ‘This verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, hung the mountain over them like a barrel, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah it will be good; if not, there shall be your grave!’ Rabbi Aha bar Jacob said, ‘This constitutes serious grounds for protesting the validity of our acceptance of the Torah!’” If our obligation to uphold the Torah today harks back to our acceptance of Torah 4,000 years ago at Sinai which was based on duress, our commitment then and now is not binding!

How can Rabbi Abdimi logically — and textually — maintain that God “forced us” into accepting Torah? The biblical chapter relating the Sinai Covenant clearly states: “The entire nation responded in one voice and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we shall do’” [Ex 19:8]. And then, for emphasis, once again, ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall internalize” [Ex. 24:7]. The Sages dare not “remove a biblical verse from its literal and contextual meaning!”

What Rabbi Abdimi may be referring to is the supernatural, Divinely orchestrated context within which the Revelation was placed: the outstretched arm of God that had wrought the judgments of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea upon the Egyptians, along with “the thunder, the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking furnace” [Ex. 19:16] which accompanied God’s words. Rabbenu Tam [Tosafot, Shabbat 88a] goes

so far as to say that no covenants agreed upon by Israel after hearing Divine speech can be seen as voluntary commitments: “God’s awesome communication in itself creates a situation of duress,” removing the individual’s free choice.

The question then remains; are we or are we not obligated to keep the commandments of Torah? In the previously cited Talmudic passage, Rava explains why we remain obligated: “Despite the (coercion at Sinai), Israel freely accepted the Torah in the days of Ahashverosh, as it says, ‘the Jews confirmed and received’ [Esther 9:27]. That is, they confirmed then what they had previously received (at Sinai).”

Allow me to explain. During the biblical period, Israel was in national infancy, slowly advancing to bar mitzvah. It was essential that our Parent­in­Heaven assume center stage by establishing our status as a free nation and communicating His Torah as our Divine Constitution and Mission Statement.

As we developed, from the Second Commonwealth and onwards, we were given the charge to complete an incomplete world and also to complete an incomplete Torah which had to remain relevant through changing times and circumstances (the Oral Law, interpretations by the Sages of every age). From then on, we became responsible to lead ourselves and the world in the path toward redemption.

The story of Esther took place (and was written) just as the period of the second commonwealth was about to begin. God’s name does not appear in the Scroll of Esther; He has a significant role, but He remains behind the glass curtain, and the crucial decisions must be made by the human participants: Esther, Mordecai. ... The victory of Torah Jewry over Persian assimilation, which takes place in the Scroll of Esther, demonstrates the new age which is dawning.

The Scroll of Esther confirmed the Jewish acceptance of Torah commitment as an act of free choice, even without the overwhelming Divine Presence taking center stage.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.

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