Thoughts on Prayers of Redemption
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The concept of redemption in our prayerbook has a dual focus. On one hand, we recall how God has redeemed our ancestors from slavery and saved them from various enemies in earlier times and therefore, it is our hope that God might continue to offer this service to us and bring about a better world through His active intervention in history. On the other hand, redemption seems to have an inner component as well. As we recognize our own shortcomings we come to realize that we can make significant changes in our lives and redeem our souls and become better people. There are two different blessings among the petitions in the weekday Amidah which focus on redemption, one on our personal needs and the other on the more universal concerns of humanity. The first, Re'eh b'onyeinu, asks God to “look on our affliction, plead our cause, and redeem us for Your name's sake.” It closes with the blessing, praising God who is the Redeemer of Israel. Toward the end of the petitions we turn to God and say, “May the offshoot of Your servant David soon flower and may his pride be raised high by Your salvation, for we wait for Your salvation all day.” We conclude by praising God who “makes the glory of salvation flourish.”
This last blessing reflects the concept of a Redeemer, a Messiah, a descendant of the line of King David, who will one day come upon the scene and perfect the world, bringing an end to conflict and strife, causing harmony and cooperation to flourish throughout the world. All of life's pains and sorrows will vanish in this magical age some time in the unspecified future. In addition to these weekday b'rachot, we include our hope for redemption in every service of the year in the opening blessing of the Amidah where we say, “Umeivi goel livnei v'neihem l'maan sh'mo b'ahava” “And God will bring a Redeemer to their descendants for the sake of God's name in love.” Some have substituted the word “geulah,” “redemption” for “goel,” “redeemer,” and argued that no one individual, no matter how holy, could possibly accomplish this goal. Rather redemption is something we all must work on together. As Rabbi Robert Levine, put it in the title of a book, “There Is No Messiah and You're It.” When we look at redemption in this light, we realize that the two foci I mentioned before come together; as we bring redemption to our own lives, we move the world a step closer to that ultimate redemption, toward the messianic age for which we pray.
Geulah, redemption, is one of the three great theological concepts that show up again and again in our liturgy. Every morning and evening in our daily prayers, we are to recite the Sh'ma and its blessings. Two blessings precede the Sh'ma both in the morning and in the evening, one that focuses on Creation, Yotzer Or in the morning and HaMaariv Aravim at night. The second, just before the Sh'ma is on Revelation, how God's love is manifested through the gift of Torah, Ahavah Rabbah in the morning and Ahavat Olam at night. Following the three biblical passages that make up the Sh'ma, we come to the blessing of Redemption, of Geulah, Emet v'Yatziv, true and enduing, in the morning and Emet ve-Emunah, true and faithful, in the evening. In the evening there is a fourth blessing that is seen by our sages as an extension of the blessing of Geulah, as it seeks protection for us through the night, Hashkiveinu. In earlier pieces in this series, we have examined the three biblical passages and all of the other blessings except for these two blessings of redemption, the Geulah prayers, which I want to examine in this piece.
As with the other blessings of the Sh'ma, the rabbis give us two versions of essentially the same prayer, one to be said in the morning service and the other at night. Both begin with the word “Emet” truth, which it is customary to link to the end of the third paragraph of the Sh'ma. That paragraph ends with the words, “Ani Adonay Eloheichem” “I am the Lord your God.” After we conclude that paragraph in the synagogue silently, the reader repeats the last two words aloud and links them to the word “Emet” in the Geulah blessing, thus “Adonay Eloheichem Emet” “The Lord your God is Truth.” Both versions of the blessing conclude with mention of God's saving acts at the crossing of the Red Sea. It is customary to sing two verses from the Song at the Sea, “MI chamocha baElim Adonay” “Who is like You among the gods, O Lord” and “Adonay yimloch l'olam vaed” “The Lord will reign forever and ever.” Both blessings conclude with the words, “Praised are You, Lord, who has redeemed Israel, gaal Yisrael,” in the past tense in contrast to the blessing in the Amidah which ends “goel Yisrael, who redeems Israel” in the present tense. It is suggested that the morning version of the geulah focuses on past deliverance, while the evening version looks to future redemption. The rabbis call on us to link Geulah, redemption, to Tefillah, prayer, i.e. The Amidah which follows immediately, with the phrase “umeivi goel” mentioned before in its opening passage. Thus one should not interrupt between the end of the blessing of Geulah and the beginning of the Amidah. That works fine in the morning service, but in the evening, other prayers intervene and the rabbis need to make excuses for the delay in starting the Amidah.
The rabbis distinguish between the two versions of this prayer by citing the familiar verse from Psalm 92, the Psalm of Shabbat, “L'hagid baboker chasdecha ve-emunatcha baleilot.” “To tell of Your love in the morning and of Your faithfulness at night.” In the morning we recount God's acts of love in bringing us forth from Egypt. At night we speak of our faith that He will continue to bring redemption in time to come. Some suggest that in the light of day, things seem clearer and thus truth can be considered enduring (emet v'yatziv) while at night, in the dark, there is some uncertainty and one needs faith to carry us through (emet ve-emunah).
The Geulah blessing begins by affirming the teachings of the Sh'ma, thus the purposeful linking of the third paragraph of Sh'ma, which ends with the mention of the redemption of Egypt, to the opening of the Geulah blessing. In the morning version we find a string of 15 adjectives, all linked by the conjunction “vav” “and,” praising the word of God in the Torah. Fifteen reminds us of the fifteen shirei hama'alot, the Psalms of Ascents, 120- 134. It also recalls the 15 ma'alot, the divine favors mentioned in the Dayenu on Pesach, where we enumerate the steps of redemption that would each have sufficed. We also think of the fifteen steps (ma'alot) that ascended in the Temple from the court of the women to the court of Israel.
The word “emet” true or truth recurs at least five times in the blessing in the morning version (even more in the Sephardic tradition).We speak of God's power, His eternal presence in the world and His acts of salvation throughout history. We point to His words which are enduring and faithful for all time for our ancestors and for us, for our children and for all generations into the future. The language, though somewhat redundant, makes a strong point that we feel confident that the God who has been with us in the past will continue to be a reliable source of support and protection for all time. This is restated several times emphatically in several passages, again and again emphasized by the word “emet.”
In the final section of the prayer, we shift to a short retelling of the wondrous acts that God used to bring us out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. This redemption is the foundation of our faith in God's power and reliability, thus there is no listing of subsequent redemptions, only this one from Egypt. Having detailed these saving acts, we conclude with selections from the Song at the Sea as mentioned previously, as we join in the chorus praising God and offering thanks. The congregation rises for the final paragraph in anticipation of the Amidah; we call upon God as “Tzur Yisrael” “the Rock of Israel.” We pray, “Arise to the help of Israel. Deliver, as You promised, Judah and Israel. Our Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is His name, the Holy One of Israel. Blessed are You, Lord, who redeemed Israel.”
The evening version of this blessing is much shorter. Though it is similar in content, it seems to be more explicit on God's continuing acts of deliverance through history, “He is our King who redeems us from the hand of kings and delivers us from the grasp of all tyrants.” “He led us on the high places of our enemies, raising our pride above all foes.” From this point on, the prayer once again focuses on the redemption from Egypt and the crossing of the sea. The same two verses from the Song at the Sea are sung once more by the congregation. The reader concludes the blessing by quoting the book of Jeremiah, “And it is said, 'For the Lord has redeemed Jacob and rescued him from a power stronger than his own.' Blessed are You, Lord, who redeemed Israel.”
We might note that while the traditional version of the prayer, both in the morning and evening mentions “Moses and the children of Israel” singing a song in great joy to the Lord, a number of recent Reform and Conservative prayerbooks add the name of Miriam to this section as well, since she is specifically mentioned in Exodus as leading the women in singing the Song at the Sea. Indeed, we should note that Miriam is among several women whom the rabbis mention were responsible for bringing about the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt: the Egyptian midwives (Shifra and Puah) who refused to kill the babies, Pharaoh's daughter (Batyah or Bithiah) who adopted the baby Moses, of course, his mother Yocheved and sister Miriam, and later his wife Zipporah, who acts swiftly to save his life later in the story. All of these righteous women and later figures in our history have played important roles in the work of redemption.
As we come through this contentious period of the election and as the outcome is gradually becoming more clear, we pray for redemption for our country and all of its people. May we come together, men and women of all backgrounds, to build a better, stronger, healthier, society. Our hope and our prayer is for true redemption, for the triumph of truth and love, hope and compassion, for all people in the days ahead. It's a tall order, but when there is no messiah on the horizon, then we are it, and it is our responsibility to do our part to build a better future for all.