Redemption

n

“REDEMPTION: One year after an historic loss, Virginia wins its first title.” This was the headline this week in The Washington Post reporting on the victory in the men’s NCAA basketball finals of Virginia’s victory over Texas Tech by a score of 85-77. I do not watch sports on television, so please forgive me for not recognizing at first that this was a college contest between two universities. But I could not ignore the first word of the headline, a word I usually associate with religion even though it has a common ordinary and secular application.

Basically, Virginia not only won its first NCAA basketball championship, but it did so in overtime, the first NCAA championship to go into overtime since 2008. Virginia did so against the background of the year before in March of 2018 when Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed by 74-54. In 2019, the team redeemed itself from the previous year’s humiliation. Individual team players also redeemed themselves. Kyle Guy, named the most outstanding player, scored 24 points. Ty Jerome scored 16 points and had eight assists, the last with 12.9 seconds left in the regulation game. Jerome dribbled up the side rather than directly down the centre and fed the ball to DeAndre Hunter in the corner, who, at halftime, had only scored five points. Hunter scored and the game was tied 68-68 as it went into overtime.

It was during overtime that the team really redeemed itself, making all 12 of its free throws. Hunter scored another three-point shot with 2:09 left to provide a 75-73 lead and eventually Virginia won by eight points, 85-77.

Sports figures can redeem themselves. So too can sports teams. Bus redemption is also used in politics. Yesterday, I wrote about the Israeli election. In that case, one party, Labour, embarrassed itself by winning only 6 seats when it previously held 20 seats and once was the “natural” ruling party of Israel. That party had been dominated by Ashkenazi, but tried to recover from its gradual decline by bringing in Avi Gabbay, a rags-to-riches Mizrachi who had become the CEO of Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Gabbay’s most fateful mistake that proved that he could never become Prime Minister was to declare that he would not sit in a coalition with the Arab parties. This meant that the centre-left would never win enough seats in total to form a government.

In one case in sports we had a successful redemption while in the second case in politics, a political party failed not only to redeem itself but went down to ignominious defeat. Neither is a case of religious redemption. This past week, I attended an event at my synagogue called, “In Pursuit of Redemption: Where is Redemption Found in the Jewish and Catholic Traditions? – An Interfaith Program in Anticipation of Pesach and Easter.” This joint Jewish-Roman Catholic program included wonderful choral music based on the exodus theme, a 1987 film (Babette’s Feast) adopted from Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s) 1958 last collection, Anecdotes of Destiny, and commentary on the film.

Religious redemption differs from secular redemption in a number of important respects:

  • In the secular meaning, an individual, a team or a party redeems itself; in the religious meaning, God is the redeemer and humans serve as God’s messengers.
  • The third blessing of the morning prayers declares that God alone is the eternal redeemer; in other words, when God redeems, it is not a contrast between one point in time and another, but the redemption is forever.
  • Instead of being redeemed from loss, you are redeemed from oppression in the Hebrew tradition and from sin in the Christian tradition
  • In the Jewish tradition, a collectivity, the Jewish people, is redeemed rather than simply an individual as in the primary meaning in Christianity, but this contrast requires qualification – see below.
  • There is another secular meaning of redemption in commerce, as when a bond is redeemed or a debt repaid derived from the core meaning derived from the Latin, “redemption” from “redimere,” to buy back.

However, the latter is also the core meaning in Hebrew. The verb, gä’al, means “to regain possession by payment,” in other words, “to buy back.” Paying a ransom is a form of redemption. But there is another meaning referring to revenge, “to avenge bloodshed” by blood (Numbers 35:19). The Passover holiday is about redemption. The Hebrews were spared the death of their oldest child by putting blood on their door-posts. Further, the entire narrative is a story of redemption from oppression in Egypt to freedom and sovereignty in their own land.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (The Human Role in Redemption) claimed that there could be no redemption without an individual assuming responsibility and taking action. Though God grants the redemption, humans initiate the process. (pp. 152-3) Man must be God’s shaliach or messenger, a malakh, an angel. When Virginia redeemed itself by winning against Texas Tech, individual players had to be the source of that redemption through their athletic skills. The religious dimension is added by declaring that a player’s and the team’s overall effort depended ultimately on God’s will. In Prophetic Choice, Martin Buber wrote that, “There is no other people in the world that believes in the great value of each and every person in humanity [to shape] the future so that the Creation will be fixed (takana) and redeemed by virtue of the will and actions of humanity.”

National salvation in this view is not a guarantee, but dependent on human choice and action. It is not a matter of optimism, but of hope that requires human activity for fulfillment. God may be the redeemer, but redemption depends on a partnership. That initiative requires putting the conditions for redemption in place. In the morning Amidah prayers in this morning’s synagogue service, nineteen blessings ae recited. The first three praise God (1) as the God of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, (2) for His power and strength and (3) for the sanctification of God’s name. The prayer for redemption is number 7 which asks God to rescue the people of Israel, but it is preceded by three other prayers, (4) a prayer to grant understanding (binah), (5) a prayer for repentance (teshuvah) and (6) a prayer for forgiveness (selichah).

Thus, though the story of Passover is a tale of travelling from oppression to freedom, there are prerequisites, praising God for choosing the Israelites to receive the Torah, for His strength and for the holiness of His name. There are three other prerequisites that belong to the individual – understanding, repentance and forgiveness. Redemption stands on these six divine and human supports. This suggests that redemption follows from three conditions that are a human responsibility – understand what one did and why one acted in the way one did, acknowledge responsibility for one’s actions and ask forgiveness for one’s failings. Then and only then is one in a position to be redeemed.

Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus offered a wonderful interpretation of the Passover narrative which puts women at the centre to ensure understanding, repentance and forgiveness as prerequisites to the redemption of the people. Exodus begins by relaying how the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became enslaved and oppressed by a pharaoh who did not know Joseph, culminating in the order to kill the firstborn of the Israelites.

First, Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives, are instructed to look (ur’iten) at the birthstool to see whether the infant is a boy or girl and, if a boy, to destroy the newborn child (Exodus 1:15-16).

טז  וַיֹּאמֶר, בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת-הָעִבְרִיּוֹת, וּרְאִיתֶן, עַל-הָאָבְנָיִם:  אִם-בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ, וְאִם-בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה. 16 and he said: ‘When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, ye shall look upon the birthstool: if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.’

This seeing is understanding that the sacrifice of the males is no longer to be symbolic by performing a circumcision and drawing forth a drop of blood. Then, Shiphrah and Puah review their past practices and expertise and determine that they cannot do what they have been ordered to do and they engage in “wholehearted repentance” to draw closer to God and away from the authority of the Pharaoh. In order to succeed, they lie. The two midwives told the Pharaoh that the Israelite women gave birth so fast that they never got there on time.   

They ask for and God forgives theirs sin for they lied in God’s name to confront the affliction and cause of the Israelites and for the sake of God’s name. God can then get on with redeeming His people. The Pharaoh then simply ordered the Egyptians to throw the first-born males of the Israelites into the Nile River. From the tribe of Levy, a male infant is born to an Israelite woman, her first son. When she (2:2) “saw, votieir, (וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא) how beautiful the infant was, she hid him and then, after three months, put the child in a wicker basket coated with bitumen and pitch and floated it down the river where the baby was (2:5) “spotted,” votieir, (וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף). The princess sees a baby crying and her heart goes out to him and she too disobeys the order to kill the first-born Hebrew male.

One has to see and understand before there can be any redemption. One has to concretely repent by engaging in civil disobedience. Then and only then will God forgive you for a sin of disobedience for it was carried out for a higher cause. Moses follows a different path. He, too, is also overwhelmed with compassion as he saw an overseer whipping a Hebrew slave. (2:11) Seeing no one about, he killed him. But Moses did not see, as the women did, with compassion, but only with regard to his own safety. And he was wrong in believing he did so undetected. He had been spotted and fled Egypt. Moses at this point did not understand (that is, comprehend with compassion), did not repent but fled and was not forgiven for killing the overseer.

Understanding must be conjoined with compassion. Repentance is not simply saying you are sorry, but taking action and committing a crime in the name of a higher law. The action is then blessed by forgiveness. The women were the first to understand, to repent by their actions and be forgiven by God for their transgressions against the political authority of the day. In contrast, Moses acted rashly out of compassion and did not understand, committed a crime but fled the scene and, therefore could not be forgiven and was not yet ready to serve God as the redeemer of His people. It would take time before Moses would be able to see, would be able to disobey earthly authority, would be forgiven for his initial rash action. Moses had to look and see with understanding as well as compassion. Then he would not only personally change direction, but change the course of history.

Only when Moses passed those markers, could the Israelites be delivered from their oppression and be redeemed (geulah). Gaal means cover or protect (Job 3:4) Geulah also refers to the redeeming of property. Redemption in the material sense is conjoined with religious redemption. The Israelites are redeemed by gaining the land of Canaan.

The narratives of redemption in the Torah, is not only the one of the Exodus, but the one of Esther celebrated recently as Purim, and, even more telling, the story told in the Book of Ruth. Naomi was left with two Moabite daughters-in-law and all three were widows. She returns to the land of Israel with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, who exhibited extraordinary love and compassion for her mother-in-law. Ruth, a Moabite, was blessed with understanding.

What you sow you shall not necessarily reap, for you must ensure that enough grain is left for the poor and the needy. Leviticus 23:22 reads:

כב  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם, לֹא-תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ, וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט; לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.  22 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God. 

And again in Deuteronomy 24:19-22:

ט  כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה, לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ–לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה:  לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.  {ס} 19 When thou reapest thy harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hands. {S}
כ  כִּי תַחְבֹּט זֵיתְךָ, לֹא תְפַאֵר אַחֲרֶיךָ:  לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה. 20 When thou beatest thine olive-tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.
כא  כִּי תִבְצֹר כַּרְמְךָ, לֹא תְעוֹלֵל אַחֲרֶיךָ:  לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה. 21 When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it after thee; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

Naomi and Ruth are among those needy. They are widows. The two women tied together by a ribbon of compassion come in contact with the compassionate Law of Sowing and Reaping. Ruth meets with Boaz, the steward of God’s land titled to both he and his brother. Ruth is his sister-in-law. She goes to him while he is sleeping and protecting his grain from thieves and uncovers his feet in an act of submission and states: “I am Ruth your maid. So, as a close relative, spread your covering over me.” In effect, she seduces Boaz. This too is an act of repentance in the sense of challenging norms in the name of a higher norm. She is clearly forgiven by both Boaz and God for being forward. As a result, Naomi redeems her son’s land and Ruth is redeemed through marriage to Boaz.

Exodus is the story on a collective level of the sequence of understanding, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. It is both an individual and a collectivist motif. Further, it is material as well as “spiritual.” That is why the 1987 film, Babette’s Feast, is so interesting. Gabriel Axel’s Danish film is Pope Francis’s favourite movie. The two beautiful and beatific sisters in the film are God’s angels (malokhim) who turn their backs on realization of success in this world, one from marriage to an army officer and the other from fame as a divine singer. Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Brigitte Federspiel) perform good works and conduct prayer groups to honour their Lutheran father, the original Protestant pastor of this Danish community dedicated to simplicity and community.

The two angels take in a refugee in flight from the French civil war, Babette, (Stéphane Audran) who lost both her husband and son in that conflict. She carries an introduction from Filippa’s opera singer suitor. After 14 years of payless service to the two angelic sisters, Babette wins a lottery from a gift of a ticket by the man who wanted to make one of the sisters famous as an opera star. Redemption in the normal sense is inverted. For Babette uses all the money to put on the most splendid feast possible, quite the opposite end of what this small Lutheran cult dedicated to minimalism are used to. The food and drink serve to redeem the villagers from their gray and narrow and puritanical world and remind them of God’s beautiful and sensual and aromatic and tasteful material bounty.

Thus, the Passover feast is an integral part of the path of redemption, for redemption is both material and spiritual. And, at the end of the seder, instead of four ponderous and leading questions, the matriarch of the house can ask her guests whether “she has served enough of too much.”

With the help of Alex Zisman

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