Beshalach 5770 — Are we redeemed?

January 28, 2010

What if the redemption had come, and no one noticed?

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the Jewish people are fleeing for their lives – running away from Pharaoh, ready to cross the Red (or Reed) Sea, and leave Egypt behind.  We are at the climax of “Yetziat Mitzrayim,” the Exodus from Egypt.  The geulah – redemption – is well under way.

This week’s Torah portion continues the theme of “redemption” started a few weeks ago.  But what does it mean to be redeemed?  Since redemption is also supposed to happen again, in the future, how will we know when it has happened?

When was the past redemption?  Did it happen when Israel left Egypt?  Or was it when they arrived in the Promised Land, forty years later?

One hint: we refer to the event as “yetziat Mitzrayim,” going out from Egypt.  We don’t commemorate it as “hachnasat Yisrael,” the “going in” to israel.

Maybe the answer is really both.  Maybe yetziat Mitzrayim, going out from Egypt is the first stage of redemption, and its fulfillment is forty years later with the going into Israel.

What about today?  Are we redeemed already?  If not, what are the criteria for calling ourselves “redeemed?”

In the Talmud (Shabbat 63a), Shmuel says there is no difference between these days and the days of the Messiah, except that in the days of the Messiah Israel will no longer be under foreign domination.  That has been fulfilled: as a people, Israel is no longer under foreign domination.  We have a country with an overwhelmingly Jewish population, a Jewish government, including (for better AND worse) compulsory laws enforcing the observance of certain Jewish rituals including the Sabbath and holidays, marriage and divorce, etc.  The Jewish people, are, once again, able to determine their own destiny (at least to the extent any country determines its own destiny in this highly interconnected world).

Despite the freedom from foreign domination, there are those who say that the secular state of Israel cannot count as “redemption” because we are not ruled by a king descended from the house of David.

But I would argue that the tradition uses monarchy as the form of government because two thousand years ago that was the dominant form of government.  If the rabbis of the Talmud had said “in the days of the Messiah Israel will be a secular democracy with a Knesset, President, and Prime Minister,” it might not have made much sense.  The Torah speaks in the language of man – and not just in the language, but in the concepts people can relate to.  If the Torah were written today, you can bet there’d be a lot more about the internet, and a lot less about slaves.

Folks, redemption is here.  One of the main features of redemption is “the ingathering of the exiles.”  We now have a plurality of Jews living in Israel – there are more Jews in Israel than in any other country, and within not too many years, a majority of the world’s Jews will be living in Israel.  Jews have flocked to Israel from all over the world: in one of my daughter’s classes, with 35 kids in the class, they were born in 26 different countries.  I don’t think the in-gathering of the exiles has to mean all Jews will live in Israel.  That will never happen – and what’s more, it never really happened in the past, either.  During the late Second Temple period, Jewish world demographics were similar to today, in that there were more Jews living outside Israel than in it, although Israel still likely had more Jews than any other single country.

Today, Jews who need to move to Israel to flee oppressions have already moved to Israel, or have decided they don’t want to.  After all those years of efforts to “free Soviet Jewry,” Soviet Jewry has been freed.  Aliyah from America and Western Europe will never amount to more than a trickle.  Israel is only an El Al ticket away, and the Jewish Agency is ready to help any Jew who wants to move here.  For all intents and purposes, the ingathering of the exiles has been successfully completed.

Given the tremendous changes the Jewish world has experienced in the last 60 years, it might be time to update our liturgy—in particular, the Amidah.  Why should we pray for the restoration of a king descended from the house of David?  We already have a Jewish government.  What I want to pray for is that those leaders should rule us wisely and capably, guided by the Torah.  Similarly, now that the exiles have been gathered, I would pray for dynamic relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, as envisaged by Achad Ha’am, each strengthening the other.

I find the traditional Musaf Amidah almost impossible to pray.  It’s just too much cognitive dissonance to be standing in a synagogue in vibrant, Jewish Jerusalem saying words like “on account of our sins we were exiled from our land.”  Hello, we’re not exiled anymore!

But what about the Temple?  It’s not rebuilt.  Isn’t that the real measure of “redemption?”

The truth is, Israel has physical control of the Temple Mount.  If the will were there, the Temple could be rebuilt (yes, a billion Muslims would object and possibly wipe us off the face of the earth, but in theory we could do it).  We don’t rebuild the Temple because it feels like the price would be too high, and it’s perhaps not seen as such a critical thing anymore.  We believe peace with the Muslim world is more important than restoring animal sacrifice.

In general, I prefer to leave the liturgy the way it is.  I generally do not favor updating the liturgy to make it more politically correct – I personally do not add the imahot (mothers) when I pray, because I’m more comfortable with the traditional form.  However, the founding of the state of Israel – having this little strip of land under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years – is significant enough that I believe it merits making more liturgical changes than we have so far.  What we’ve done so far is “tippy toeing.”  We add a blessing for Israel, “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” to the grace after meals.  Some (but certainly not all) recite Hallel on Yom Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.

This is the most important thing to happen to the Jews in 2,000 years, I think we can do more than that.  The rabbis made liturgical changes when the Temple was destroyed and many went into exile.  Another update is in order.

But if we change the liturgy, what do we pray for?

My friend David Breakstone was interviewed by the Jerusalem Post recently, in an article by Haviv Rettig Gur entitled “Zionism was always about building an exemplary society.  David says that the work of Zio
nism is not finished.  We need to work on creating the “model society.”  He asks the interviewer whether he had ever read Herzl’s Altneuland.  He hadn’t.  David said:

"Nobody has. But that's a very important starting point" to answering the question, "because it tells us that when we talk about Zionism being not just about the founding of Israel, but about what kind of Israel we're building, then we're not inventing this as a new agenda. Making a better society, talking about the issues that face us – that is the heart of Zionism itself."

Instead of talking only about the "crisis Zionism of [Herzl's political manifesto] Der Judenstaat – that Jews need a shelter, a safe place to live" – the WZO must start talking about "the positive Zionism of Altneuland – about creating a model society."

The original Zionist vision – Herzl’s vision – was Israel as a “light to the nations,” as an international center of peace and prosperity, a beacon in the Middle East.  This is also completely consistent with the religious view of God’s purpose in forming a partnership with the Jewish people.  We are to be “or l’goyim,” a light to the nations, leading the way to a better world for all God’s creatures.

This Shabbat – Shabbat Shirah AND Tu b’Shvat – is a very appropriate time to rededicate ourselves to that ideal working to improve the world.  Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat when we recite the “song of the sea,” a poem of thanksgiving to God for bringing us out of Egypt, is an appropriate to celebrate the fact that we have, in fact, left behind “mitzrayim,” which means “constricted place,” and are once again subject to God’s rule, not the rule of a foreign king.  And Tu b’Shvat, which has become a “Jewish Earth Day” celebrating the birthday of trees and our connection to nature is an appropriate time to reflect on our role as guardians of the planet – and not just for plants, trees, and animals, but for our fellow humans as well!

So the update to the liturgy I would seek is one that acknowledges where we are today – partially redeemed, “out of Egypt,” but not yet in the “promised land” of a world of peace, prosperity and harmony for all of us.

I’m not yet ready to turn Tisha b’Av into a day of feasting – our work is not yet complete – yet neither can we spiritually ignore the most significant change in our status in 2,000 years.

Shabbat shalom,

Reb Barry

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