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January 8, 2016

Being a Goel (Parashat Va-eira)

Ari S. Lorge

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We’re going to begin tonight’s d’rash in a little bit of an unorthodox way.  We’re actually going to start with a pop quiz.  I promise this will not be that bad.  Nobody’s going to have any anxiety dreams about coming to shul. 

The first question is multiple choice: Every Pesach, every Passover, we drink four cups of wine at the seder.  Why four glasses of wine?

a) Manischewitz made this ritual up as a way to sell more of their wine.
b) That is the exact amount of wine it takes to get Uncle Schmendrick to tell the good stories about Grandpa.
c) We drink one cup for each of the four questions.
d) I have no idea, Rabbi, but I’m sure you’ll tell me the reason is tied to this week’s Torah portion.

That is right… the answer is d.  The reason for four cups of wine comes straight from this week’s parashah.  God, in the Torah this week, makes four promises of liberation to the Israelite people, using four different Hebrew verbs in each promise. These become the basis for the four cups of wine.  Each cup is supposed to remind us of these promises. 

God declares:

Hotzeiti—I will free you.

Hizalti—I will deliver you.

Ga’alti—I will redeem you.

Lakachti—I will take you.

At first glance they appear similar, but one of the Jewish views of Torah is that nothing is superfluous.  If it could have been said once, and the Torah says it four times, then there is something to be learned from each of those four iterations. 

So our second question has to be—and this is also multiple choice—which is the most significant of the four promises?  Let’s see your votes. Well, the answer is: it was a trick question. We’re taught they are all significant, but we’re going to focus on the third, ga’alti—I will redeem you.

One of the great rabbinic minds of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, noted that the third promise that begins, “I will redeem the Israelites,” is really exceptional.  The Hebrew word used by God is “ga’alti.” 

Why is this so important?  Hirsch reminds us that this Hebrew word is used elsewhere in the Torah to describe a family member who comes to the aid of their relative.  You see, in Torah, there are several laws about our responsibility to our kin.  If our family members are in trouble we have an obligation to respond, to defend them, to be their help.  This is not something we can do if we’re feeling nice; this is something we are commanded to do. 

This role had a title.  It is called a goel, often translated as a redeemer or a redeeming kinsman.  A goel was someone who wasn’t just saddened or disturbed by another person’s suffering—the goel was required to respond to their family’s suffering, to actually take action.  For example, the Torah teaches that if your relative becomes so poor they have to sell themselves into slavery, you as a goel are required to free them.  If your relative has to sell their land to sustain themselves, you as a goel have to help them recover their land.

So when God promises ga’alti—I will redeem you, we should immediately link this promise to all the times when God commands us to act as a goel.  When God says I will redeem you—ga’alti, the divine is taking on the role of the goel for the entire Israelite people.

Suddenly, these words are not just a promise.  Rather, God becomes our relative, our family: a being responsible to us, beholden to help us.  Hirsch, explaining the word choice gaalti, puts these words in the mouth of the Holy One: “You do not have one kindred soul in Egypt who would feel personally hurt by abuses to which you are being subjected.  Therefore, I will stand up as your kinsman.  I am hurt,” God says, “whenever one of My children is hurt.”

This is a radical statement.  Those who are alone, who need help, who have no advocate: “I speak for them,” God says.  “They are my kin.”  This is a radical revolution in the history of faith. All around the ancient Near East, gods were at best indifferent to humanity and at worst capricious.  But here, in Torah, we have a deity who loves humanity so much that He is willing to take on the role of family; to be bound to human suffering and need by bonds of obligation and commanded-ness.

But we living today face a problem.  In our story, God takes on the role of the goel and intervenes to free the Israelites.  Yet, this is not our experience of God or the world.  We live in a world without plagues, or burning bushes, or splitting seas.  None of us will receive a prophetic call.  Instead, we carry this ancient text, and in its words we find echoes of truth and a voice calling us to be better than our nature.  Today, all around us are people without a goel, without anyone who feels personally hurt by abuses to which they are subjected and who is obliged to do something to ameliorate that suffering. 

And yet, in this verse of Torah, God models for us an expectation.  We Jews, having found freedom and been redeemed, must see those still oppressed, still vulnerable, still voiceless as kin.  Their hurt must be our hurt.  Their plight our plight.  Their need our need.

We might look around and see the countless among us who are alone and abandoned, suffering and subjugated, mistreated and maligned, and say, as God once did, “You do not have one kindred soul in this land who feels personally hurt by abuses to which you are being subjected.  Therefore we will stand up as your kinsmen.” 

We are hurt whenever any of child of God is hurt.  Such is the enduring and eternal mission of our people Israel.