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A Mormon friend called me the other day, and wanted to talk about the concept of redemption. He wanted to better understand the Jewish/Torah point of view on what, especially to Christians, is quite an important topic. After all, what does the end of the world look like? Are there End Days of some kind?
You might think that this is something Jews think about a lot, but if you did think that, you would be wrong. The Torah is focused on what we do in this world. The way we see it, if we always try to do our best, G-d will sort things out in the end.
So the question got me thinking. The Torah itself contains no hint of an afterlife. Similarly, there is no concept of an end to the world, or even end days. Yet the text is very interested in helping us grow in this world. If we want to ask about redemption, it is easily enough done: look at how the text discusses redemption.
We started with the word itself, the word for “redemption” in the text. In Hebrew, the word is based on the root ga-al. It appears in the text no fewer than 37 times.
The vast majority of these examples deal with redeeming an animal that has been promised to be sacrificed, redeeming land from its current owners, and redeeming servants or slaves. In other words, they are all about achieving a degree of freedom, of autonomy, of separation from existing obligations.
The first time G-d uses the phrase, He says to Moses:
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
And indeed, when the Exodus occurs, the people sing:
In Your kindness You lead the people You redeemed;
In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode.
What is this redemption? The meaning seems clear: in this case, redemption is freedom from slavery. But this is not a freedom merely from something: it is a freedom to something as well. Redemption in the Torah is tightly connected to the concept of free will, with all of its concomitant rights and responsibilities, including suffering (or enjoying) the consequences of our actions.
When the people left Egypt they were like children, still possessing a slave mentality, and much growth ahead of them. This was the most basic redemption, freedom from outright institutional slavery. But, like freed slaves throughout time, the mental and cultural changes to go from slavery to truly being free in one’s own mind can take many generations.
Yet it is clear that this is where the Torah goes. Torah redemption is not about a savior, or celestial angels affecting an end of time. It is instead deeply and profoundly earthy, dealing with buying back a sheep, relationships with servants, land defaults, and even blood feuds (the person with a right to kill someone for a murder is called a “blood-redeemer.”)
Redemption is about daily freedom, including with one’s person and assets. It is about people being able to both have freedom, and possess the maturity to use it wisely.
There is an even-higher state of redemption in the Torah than merely freedom. It is not divine deliverance, but rather divine assistance! This divine assistance is explained the first time the word for redemption is used in the Torah, in the words of Jacob:
And [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying,
“The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day—
The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil—
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”
What is this angelic redemption? I think it connects back to Jacob’s life. Jacob took risks and he invested, time and again. Of all of the forefathers, it is Jacob who displayed the most initiative, who made bold choices. Those choices may well have had terrible consequences – Esau or Laban may well have killed him, for example – but those worst-case consequences did not happen. Jacob suffered, to be sure, but it could easily have been much worse.
Instead, Jacob was redeemed from evil. He gained divine favor to allow him to go through life and survive his own mistakes. This is the kind of redemption to which we are told to aspire, not a relationship with G-d in which G-d swoops in like a superhero to save the day, to get us out of jail free, but instead a relationship in which we do our best each and every day, where we work hard and try, and aim to always grow. And when we do that, in good faith and with good intentions, then G-d is involved with our lives, to save us from others and from the worst consequences we would otherwise have brought upon ourselves.
Redemption is thus not an open miracle, but a quiet and supportive partnership. Torah redemption is not a product or the End Days, but an ongoing process in which we are all invited and able to grow closer to one another as adults, making decisions as free men, and able to enjoy the fruits of our labor and appreciate the G-d who has blessed us.
In the ideal Torah society, people have both freedom and the maturity to use it well. This latter piece, maturity, is particularly difficult to attain. Being able to make our own decisions as free men is far beyond the Exodus, merely escape from institutional slavery. It is a development into partnership with G-d instead of merely servitude to G-d.
Redemption in the Torah can mean freedom from others. But it does not mean freedom from ourselves. On the contrary! The freedom to act and to choose comes with responsibility, consequences, and benefits from those choices. It is quite a lot like modern theories of free will and the role of a free man in a free society.
Redemption also does not mean freedom from G-d. Torah redemption comes with an involvement with G-d throughout the process, throughout our lives. Involving G-d is what separates religious libertarianism from libertinism. In the Torah, redemption leads to freedom and adulthood.
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