This week, the husband of a sisterhood member from Rodef Sholom died. She and I knew each other through sisterhood and from Sukkah parties at a mutual friend’s house. Her husband had been sick for a long time. She could rarely plan in advance, because she didn’t know if it would be a good day or a bad day. but that day, his last day, things were just not right. His energy was different, his breathing was off, and finally she called 911. They admitted him to the hospital at midnight, and he died around 5 am.
Whom do you call at midnight to ask, “My loved one is in the hospital, maybe he’s dying. Can you come sit with me?” For so many of us here, our kids are in New York, or Los Angeles, or San Jose, or just somewhere where they can’t make the drive that fast.
Whom do you call when you are in dire need of support? Emotional support, a shoulder, or material support, or spiritual support?
This week’s double torah portion, Behar/Behukotai, speaks about this in a material way, but you have to wonder, yet again, what’s the deeper meaning here? This section is in the long discussion of the shmita year and the Jubilee year, when everything reverts back to tribal and family ownership. It speaks about property and land, about debts, about freedom, but most important, it speaks about mutual responsibility.
Lev. 25:25 If your kin is in straits and has to sell part of their holding, their nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what their kin has sold.
Your kin is responsible for redeeming you from debt slavery, from your mortgage going under. You are similarly responsible for your kin.
Then who is kin, you might ask? The word used regularly in this chapter is achicha – translated variously as “your brother” or “your kinsperson” or “your fellow” – mate. Going from the closest of relationships—siblings from the same womb, to family—tracing the shared womb further back in your lineage, to “your fellow” or your friend, your neighbor… From brother we expand the rings of our intimacy, wider and wider.
In Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new book, How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick, she tells the story of letting people know about her newly diagnosed breast cancer. Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, author of numerous books, and activist, has a wide circle of friends, but she chooses her twelve closest. Some of us might think 12 is a large number of intimates, some of us might not. She sends out an email, not wanting to face everyone’s immediate response. She asks for confidentiality, yet within the week, she hears from other friends, outside the original 12. They all express love and caring, and she has to deal with a couple of them being miffed that they were not in the inner core. And she has to deal with her privacy being violated, and the feeling that people are talking about her behind her back.
And then she relates a story that beautifully encapsulates my ongoing internal debate about the sin of gossip: when her children were in preschool, another of the moms was in a car accident just after dropping her child off. In the days before cell phones, the other moms gathered to determine how to contact her husband, how to ensure that the child would have a place to go after school, that the school was alerted (and not expected to deal with it), how to embrace the family. In strict Jewish ruling, all of this would constitute gossip. I loved Cottin Pogrebin’s term for it: constructive intervention. According to halakha, Jewish law, we can’t talk about someone who is not in the room with us. Had these women, mothers all obeyed this, then they could not have helped the family in need. These women were stepping into the role of kin and redeemer.
Another word in this verse, or words from the same root: ga’al, go’alu. When do we hear these words? After the Mi Chamocha, as we rise for the Amidah, we sing, Baruch ata Adonai, ga’al Yisrael… blessed is the holy one, who redeems Israel. And in the first prayer of the Amidah, the Avot, or Ancestors prayer, u’mayvee ge’ulah lifnei vneihem, leman shemo v’ahava. Who brings redemption to their children’s children, for the sake of the Divine Name, in love.
Redemption (ge’ulah) is the third of the triumvirate of key Jewish concepts in the liturgy: creation, revelation and redemption. Franz Rosenzweig, the great 19th century German theologian, identified these three linked themes in our liturgy (always there, he just noticed their power in his day). Creation is pretty clear; revelation also: the Torah, the teachings, and all that. But redemption can be a little murky. Especially since it appears third in the liturgy. It refers to redemption from the slavery of our ancestors that we celebrate at Passover, and we remember each time we sing the Mi Chamocha, and every time we sing the Shema and its blessings: hotzati etchem ma’eretz Mitzrayim: who brought us out of the land of Egypt. But if we were only referring to the redemption from that slavery, it would come between creation and revelation, wouldn’t it? Instead, the rabbis placed it last. And they were not talking about redemption from debt, redemption from debt slavery, or having your house under water.
Actually, they may have indeed been talking about that, but they were ALSO talking about redemption in a couple of other ways. First and foremost was the redemption from exile: they viewed the separation from the land and each other as a disaster that shook our very core. After all, to them, and to many people, the place of connection between us and the Divine, the connection at the place of the Temple, was where holiness came from the heavens down to us. It was our Axis Mundi, the central sacred place. Our removal from it caused desolation. And our redemption would be a return to that place.
The final redemption would come finally in the world to come. The rabbis talked about the time when we would all rise from the dead, the bones of Jeremiah, for instance. But the Reform Movement transformed some ideas of Isaac Luria and his fellow mystics into the idea of not a person redeeming us, but of a time when we, and all peoples of the earth, are redeemed from the world as it is now, when petty jealousies would be over, when suffering might end, and when wars cease. The world we sing about during the Aleinu. (Mishkan T’filah, p. 589)
When corruption and evil shall give way to integrity and goodness
When superstition shall no longer enslave the mind,
nor idolatry blind the eye.
O may all, created in Your image,
become one in spirit and one in friendship.
forever united in Your service.
Even though we are back in the land, we can see that violence and corruption and idolatry are not yet gone. And so we continue to dream of a time, work for a time, when we might yet see it.
And meanwhile, it seems like we are in an interim period, when we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt, to serve God and be a light to the nations, not just to shop at Wal-Mart or Williams Sonoma, or take vacations and sit on the beach…we were redeemed so that we could be a blessing.
There is another Jewish meaning for redemption: the Encyclopedia Judaica defines it as “salvation from the states or circumstances that destroy the value of human existence or human existence itself.”
That destroy the VALUE of human existence…
When you need support—emotional, spiritual, material, is it because it feels like the value of your existence is threatened? Your existence, your loved ones’, someone else’s? Those are the moments when we need redemption…
Illness, dying, death, crisis, loss of home, loss of job, loss of security, (lots of the items on this list are about loss, when we might worry about the destruction of the value of our existence)… all of these can spark the need for a redeemer, be it your sibling, your family or your dear ones not born of the same lineage.
This week, many of us learned that our former president and the friend of many has moved from receiving treatment care to comfort care. His wife has told us his time may be soon. He had gone from the congregation before I arrived, spending much of his time in the Bay Area. Yet he came to my installation service last June, even after his diagnosis. His family is thinking of a private ceremony, with a more public one later. My question – in light of this verse and its fuller meaning – is whether we as a community, in our own mourning for him, need a shiva minyan of our own, on Jewish standard time, so that we can come together to share stories, remember him, build memories, share our grief, share our tears, and think about how to surround his family with the love of community. How we can redeem each other, redeem his family. And build that structure for ourselves when other members of our community die off the mountain.
We all need redeemers when we get to a place where the value of our existence seems threatened. The torah tells us who to turn to, tells us what our responsibility is to each other to redeem our siblings, our family, our fellows. We should none of us be alone in our midnight trip to the hospital, or when a loved one dies, or when a pillar of the community dies, or when a child is sick, or any of those moments.
That’s one of the jobs of a kehillah kedosha, a sacred congregation. We do many of these tasks already, let us gather with the caring committee to figure out what other ones we envision doing.