Over the course of the past several years, we have had some marvelous opportunities to visit places where I had once lived. My wife and I had moved away from some of these communities ten or twenty years ago, and in one case, forty years ago.
It was delightful to become reacquainted with old friends, and even to renew some long-forgotten friendships.
On the other hand, it was difficult to deal with the changes that we observed in the people we once knew so well. Naturally, the years have taken their toll, and they all showed physical signs of having aged. Even more remarkable were the changes in their personalities and character, which in some cases were quite profound. More than once, I found myself asking, “Is this the same person that I once knew?”
Typically, these deep changes were not even noticed by their peers, by those who were living with them all along. This is because people don’t change overnight. They change gradually over time. It was the interval of many long years that enabled me to be aware, and yes, sometimes quite troubled, by these differences.
Our Sages were aware of the stage-like progression from infancy to maturity to senility, and ultimately, to death. Judah Ben Tema anticipated the insights of modern psychologists by teaching in Ethics of the Fathers (5:25) that “…five years old is the age to begin studying Scripture; ten for Mishna; thirteen for the obligation of the commandments… eighteen for marriage; twenty for seeking a livelihood… fifty for giving counsel… ninety for a bent back… at one hundred, one is as if he were dead and gone from the world.”
In our own times, it was the famous psychologist Erik Erikson (who, despite his Scandinavian name, was Jewish) who taught us in his book, Childhood and Society, that when we go through the stages of life, we must master specific developmental tasks at each point, and only then can we truly mature.
Stages are not only typical of the development of individuals. Nations too must go through a system of stages as they grow and mature. This lesson is taught to us in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Va’era. The Almighty commands Moses to tell the Jewish people that they will be going through at least four distinct stages in their progress from slavery to freedom. “… I will take you out… I will rescue you… I will redeem you… and I will take you as My people…” (Exodus 6:6-7). Some even add, “I will bring you into the land…” (ibid. 8)
These are the four “expressions of redemption,” to which the four cups of wine that we drink at the Passover seder correspond. Commentators from ancient times to this day have seen in these four expressions four distinct stages through which a nation must pass if it is going to transcend its chaotic beginnings and become a cohesive cultural entity.
Representative of this school of interpretation is the analysis given by Rabbi Mayer Simcha of Dvinsk in his masterful work, Meshech Chochma. For Rabbi Mayer Simcha, a nation can only reach its full potential if it first becomes distinct and separate from its surroundings. Hence, the Almighty’s first promise is that He will “take us out”. Then it must demonstrate that it is worthy of “rescue” by developing a model of internal cooperation and self-protection. From there, it must develop a self-concept of freedom by being “redeemed” and no longer identifying with the persecutor. And finally, it must develop national pride, common morals, and a sense of destiny. That is what it means to be “taken as My people.”
If, as some insist, there is that fifth stage, then it is only after mastering the four initial tasks that there is hope for the Almighty to “bring us into the land”.
In a homiletic tour-de-force, Rabbi Mayer Simcha goes on to show that the sequence of the Passover seder ritual symbolically parallels the four stages necessary for the formation of a nation. And he demonstrates that these four stages correspond to the sequence of the spiritual and religious development of the individual. For an adequate description of this latter insight, dear reader, I refer you to the standard edition of Rabbi Mayer Simcha’s commentary at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.
In today’s “now generation” there is a tendency to expect instant change and very swift growth. Our Torah portion, indeed our entire tradition, teaches us that those expectations are unrealistic. One can only reach psychological maturity by proceeding through a serial progression of painful life experiences. Achieving spiritual perfection demands a journey through the kinds of stages outlined by those books of our tradition that describe the process, the most famous of which is Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s Messilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just).
In my own rabbinic work, I have so often had to insist on patience to those newcomers to our tradition who wanted to integrate into Orthodox Jewish society too quickly. In my teaching of young rabbis, I find myself stressing to them that they must think in terms of stages when undergoing religious growth. In fact, the one book that I recommend to those working with the newly religious is Rabbi Isadore Epstein’s Step by Step in the Jewish Religion, which is sadly neglected, but available online in limited numbers, at a very reasonable price.
There is a lesson here for all of us. If our interest is politics, then we must recognize that nations develop and grow by slow changes, often only over centuries. If psychology is our concern, then we must be aware of the need to thoroughly master each developmental task that life presents to us before we can attempt to advanced levels of maturity.
And if religion and spirituality are the center of our lives, then we must learn the lesson of the “four expressions for redemption” and make sure that we advance “step by step in the Jewish religion.”