This year, my reflections on Pesach took me back to some learning I did last year, with Rabbi David Silber at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. A piece of his analysis of the biblical text inspired me to prepare a class on this topic last Shavuot; over the course of the past year, the themes and ideas have been particularly live for me as I transitioned to a new home, a new relationship, and new learning and growth in the mountains of North Carolina, far away from my usual spiritual contexts. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that inspires us to change our lives for the better, to pursue paths of spiritual growth, to work for our own personal redemption from challenging periods in our lives.
A close reading of the Exodus narrative generates insights into the psychology of redemption. Reading the text attentive to the particularities of language, we find that the redemptive process does not begin until three specific words appear: inui (suffering), avdut (servitude), and gerut (alienation). This language parallels that which God uses when foretelling the destiny that awaits Abraham’s descendents in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-14). Strikingly, the language of inui and avdut appears multiple times early in the first two chapters of Exodus; the language of gerut appears only once (Exodus 2:22). Yet it is the appearance of gerut that marks the turning point in the narrative: only at this moment does God hear the cries of the Israelites, recall the covenant with the patriarchs, and then reveal Godself to Moshe—finally setting the redemption in motion.
Thus the Torah sees gerut—alienation—as central to our experience in Egypt, and as a necessary precondition for leaving Egypt. The question is why? Why does God originally specify, in Genesis, that the people will experience gerut? And in Exodus, why do we need to see this term appear in the text before God steps in to begin the process of redemption? What role does gerut play?
To explain its necessity, Rabbi Silber suggests that while avdut and inui can be objectively identified by an outside observer, gerut is a subjective condition, requiring a degree of self-awareness. It is only when B’nai Yisrael become aware of their relationship to their environment, and feel alienated from it, that they are ready to change their reality; indeed, they cry out to God only after the language of gerut appears. Thus the mental discomfort of alienation signals a psychological readiness for change and redemption, for freedom from their oppressive condition of slavery.
What does this mean for our own lives? To my mind, this reading is a profound statement on those periods in our lives when we experience alienation and confinement. It means that these painful experiences signal a more highly evolved state of self-awareness and consciousness—one that is ready for change. In this way, our anxiety and uneasiness in our environment can be a catalyst for spiritual growth and personal redemption. Feeling alienated, we can look at our surroundings and ask the hard questions of what we need to do to change, where we need to go, what we need to aspire to in order to become redeemed. Then, if we are ready to respond to that experience of gerut, we cry out, taking the initial steps forward to partner with God in redemption, becoming agents in our own spiritual destinies.
May this Passover be one of personal, national and global awakening, where we use moments of pain to spur our steps forward in our own evolution, and towards a redeemed world.