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We Can't Be Passive When It Comes to Matters of Redemption

March 1, 2012 By:
Rabbi Michael Knopf
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The Jewish tradition seems to offer two distinct models of redemption: Purim and Pesach redemption. On Passover, the Haggadah emphasizes the exodus story as being about God lifting the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, carrying us from Egypt on eagles' wings. Pesach is about God redeeming us.
 
Purim redemption, on the other hand, is about us redeeming ourselves. The Book of Esther is the one biblical book that doesn't mention God. The Jews' victory over Haman and those who sought to destroy the Jews in Persia is won by the people and for the people.
 
So which kind of redemption should we look for in our lives: Pesach or Purim? There is a great comfort and optimism in Pesach redemption. But most of us do not experience God intervening to solve our problems for us. For its part, Purim redemption is empowering. Yet still, I need the hope that a loving, compassionate God will help me.
 
Fortunately, we are not forced to choose. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Megilah 6b), we must always celebrate Purim one month before Pesach in order to connect the redemption of Purim to the redemption of Pesach.
 
The message is that we need both, that salvation is a partnership between God and us. Redemption requires our work and God's help.
 
After all, even the redemption of Pesach could never have happened without people. Though the Passover Haggadah emphasizes God's orchestration of the exodus, the Book of Exodus recalls that God partners with Moses and Aaron to secure the Israelites' freedom. Moses and Aaron represent God to Pharaoh and summon the 10 plagues. God also needs the Israelites to join together and march out of Egypt.
 
And at the Sea of Reeds, as the Israelites find themselves trapped between the sea and Pharaoh's army, God waits to split the sea until the people take a role in their own redemption. According to a midrash (Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, Portion 5), it was not until one man, Nahshon ben Aminadav, jumped into the sea, wading out into the water until he could no longer breathe, that the sea split, allowing Israel to cross to freedom.
 
The Bible and midrash emphasize that we may not be passive bystanders in our own redemption; we must act. Pesach only happened because there were Purim Jews in the story.
 
The same is true with Purim: The story's title, Esther, is the Hebrew word for "hidden." Our rabbis interpret this to mean that God is hidden, though present, in the Purim story -- working behind the scenes, luring the Jews to triumph. Purim happened because there was a Pesach God in the story.
 
All this reminds us that both the Purim and Pesach stories involved people and God working together. Similarly, God looks to partner with us in our own -- and the world's -- redemption.
 
One of my best friends has a young daughter named Eliana. Elie had a difficult first few months of life, and she had difficulty learning to walk. So my friend used to stand behind Elie, helping her lift herself up by her arms, and gently holding her up while she began taking her own steps forward. This would always make her face light up with joy.
 
But the funny thing was, as soon as he picked her up, Elie would start crying. And when he put her down, she would cry even more. Ultimately, my friend discovered that Elie would only stop crying when he resumed helping her to walk.
 
My friend learned that if he carried her, Elie would never walk on her own. But she would also never walk if he left her completely alone. For Elie's redemption, overcoming her challenges to walking, Elie needed both Pesach and Purim.
 
We are much like Elie. We all have obstacles to overcome. If we want to get there, we need to take our own steps. And we need to know that we are not walking alone. We must do the moving, but God stands behind us, helping to lift us up, gently holding us while we take steps.
 
As we move from Purim to Pesach, the Jewish tradition invites us to partner with God, combining God's guidance with our own steps, in whatever redemption it is that we need. 
 
Rabbi Michael Knopf is assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple.
 

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