She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, but she was not Jewish. Her parents were Polish citizens who, heroically, and at the risk of their own lives, rescued Jews from certain death. Her parents are no longer alive, but their memories are enshrined in Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, in the pavilion reserved for righteous Gentiles.
She was a psychotherapy patient of mine about thirty years ago. I learned many things from her, including an answer to a question which arises in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23).
The question appears in the commentary of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra on the very first verse of the Ten Commandments. The verse begins, “I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods besides Me.”
In his commentary, Ibn Ezra cites as the source of this question his famous predecessor, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, perhaps the greatest poet in all of Hebrew literature and the author of one of the most indispensable works of philosophy in our tradition, the Kuzari.
The question is simply this: “Why would God, about to reveal the very basis of the Torah, introduce Himself to those assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai as the one who ‘brought you out of the land of Egypt?’ Wouldn’t it be more appropriate and more awe inspiring for Him to proclaim, ‘I am the Lord thy God who created heaven and earth?’ ” Does not the creation of the entire universe precede the Exodus from Egypt chronologically, and does it not supersede the Exodus as a wondrous and marvelous event? Would not people be more moved to obey the commandments of a God who created the entire world than they would be motivated to obey the commandments of He who merely freed a group of slaves?
There have been several attempts to answer this question. Traditional Jewish commentators have struggled with it, and Christian students of the Bible have been hard put to justify the relevance of the Ten Commandments to all humanity, when it was addressed by God only to those whom He delivered from the land of Egypt.
Whatever forms these many answers take, one thing is undeniable. Two aspects of God pervade the first two books of the Bible. One is the aspect of God as Creator, and the other is the aspect of God as Redeemer. Genesis emphasizes that God is the Lord over Nature, while Exodus stresses His role as the Lord of History.
This column is not the place to discuss the central dynamic of the world of nature. But it is the place to identify the central dynamic of human history: the concept of redemption, or in Hebrew, geulah.
But what is “redemption?” It is a common word in the religious lexicon not just of Judaism, but of its so-called daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. But what does it mean?
It was from my psychotherapy patient; let’s call her Catherine, that I first fully understood the significance of the word “redemption,” and why it was in His role as Redeemer that God chose to begin the Ten Commandments, and not in His role as Creator.
It was during a particularly emotionally charged psychotherapy session. Catherine was recounting the tragedy of her father’s life. He had been a prominent attorney in pre-war Poland. He had been interned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner because of his participation in the Polish resistance against the Nazis. After the war, he returned to his hometown, but instead of being given a hero’s welcome, he was shunned as a traitor for saving Jews. He was unable to return to his former prestigious position and chose instead to emigrate to the United States. But here he found himself unable to master a new language and was compelled to earn his livelihood as a janitor. He lived the rest of his life vicariously through his children, whom he helped obtain advanced professional educations.
As she recounted the story with great sadness, I expressed my empathy for her and spoke of individuals within my family who had had similar stories to tell after the Holocaust—to which she retorted sharply, “For you Jews, it was different. You have had a redemptive experience. You have rebuilt your culture, your religious communities, your educational institutions. My father had no such redemptive experience. He regained nothing of his glorious past. He died unredeemed.”
Ever since that conversation, the word “redemption” has been replete with meaning for me. It is a process by which a slave becomes free, individuals become a nation, and those who were condemned to lives of emptiness become enabled to live lives of immense significance. If God the Creator brought forth yesh me’ayin, something from nothing, then God the Redeemer brought forth a people from the depths of the 49th level of degradation to the exalted summit of freedom and faith.
Hence, my personal response to Yehuda Halevi’s question. The Almighty prefaced the Ten Commandments with the assurance that personal redemption is a real possibility—a possibility, though, only for those who absorb the ethical and moral lessons He was about to teach in those Ten Commandments. He redeemed us once from the land of bondage, and He offered us the tools to redeem ourselves again and again throughout our lives.