Redemption of Speech
Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld
Fellow, Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership
Hasidic thinkers write about the exile of Egypt as “גלות הדבור” – an exile of speech, an exile of the word. Redemption, correspondingly, is a redemption of speech.
This process of exile and redemption can be seen on a personal level within Moshe, and his process mimics the development of the nation as well. In Exodus, chapter 4, at the burning bush, the first encounter between Moshe and G-d, Moshe tells G-d in no uncertain terms that he is not a speaker – “לא איש דברים אנכי… כי כבד פה וכבד לשון אנכי” (I am not a man of words… for I have difficulty speaking/ am heavy of mouth and tongue). This theme recurs extensively in this first encounter. However, after the Exodus from Egypt, at Sinai, we see a different Moshe, a speaker – “משה ידבר והאלוקים יעננו בקול” (Moshe spoke and G-d answered him with voice, Exodus 19:19). We will return to the separation of speech and voice later, but at this point Moshe’s development and progress with speech, in parallel to the nation’s redemption, are clear.
Understanding the exile and redemption in Egypt, however, is not enough for us today. The Rambam (Hilkhot Hametz u’Matzah, Nusach ha-Haggaddah) codifies the obligation of each and every one of us today to feel as if we personally have been redeemed from Egypt. We are therefore forced to ask ourselves what this redemption means on a practical level and what it could look like for us today. I want to bring two models of redemption which can perhaps speak to us today.
The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, writes movingly on this theme in his article, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” (in Tradition and available online). He begins by explaining the process of redemption, as conceived in the Zohar, as a three-step process, which is rooted in Moshe’s development:
First it identifies bondage with absence of both word and meaningful sound, with total silence. Then redemption begins with finding sound while the word is still absent. Finally, with the finding of both sound and word, redemption attains its full realization…
He proceeds to explain the way he sees this process of redeeming the word as an ongoing process throughout history. According to the Rav, redemption is found in the human being learning to recognize and express his own needs in the form of prayer and in the form of Talmud Torah. With both prayer and Torah study, each individual can experience redemption in their own personal way, by going through the three stages described in the Zohar. One begins with silence – not recognizing the need to pray, or the intellectual need to study. Eventually a need is felt and a voice is found – to cry out in inarticulate prayer, and to feel the curiosity which motivates study. And lastly, both sound and word are found and prayer achieves its full status, as does rigorous Torah study. As the Rav concludes:
Once man gains insight into his true self, by activating the intellect, he finds himself on the road towards discovering ultimate redemption… He is aware of his needs because he prays; he is aware of his intellectual capacities because he studies. He is sure that the needs are his own, and that the intellectual capacities are a part of himself. This twofold knowledge is cathartic and redemptive.
However, both prayer and study can be lonely experiences – and though the Rav offers a convincing explanation about how these are the seeds of existential redemption, perhaps more can be said about a redemption which is able to step outside of the self.
For a second model of redemption, I turn to Rav Shagar’s chapter on this topic in his book זמן של חירות: דרשות לחג הפסח. In contrast to the Rav, redemption for Rav Shagar is found in human interaction and connection – it is found in conversation between people rather than in the conversation between man and G-d.
Rav Shagar writes movingly that the essence of the redemption we experience on Pesach is communal, rather than personal. In contrast to the Western perception which Rav Shagar sees epitomized in Sartre’s statement that “Hell is other people”, we experience a widening of our own boundaries on Pesach in which we are able to make space for guests in a way which doesn’t hinder us. Both welcoming of guests (“כל דכפין ייתי וייכול”) and conversation with others are hallmarks of the Seder night. Conversation is so essential that the Rambam even obligates the person who is alone at their own Seder, to recite the Hagaddah in question and answer form, so that he is in dialogue with himself!
The challenge inherent in Rav Shagar’s teaching is indeed a challenge, particularly over Pesach – will we open our homes to those in need of hospitality? And how will the Seder look in terms of conversation between family members? Will we manage to make the Seder a meaningful experience or spend it in a series of subtle or overt clashes with the different voices at our table?
Rav Shagar presents a model of what true conversation can look like – a speaking between subjects, where each person truly listens to the other and thus the conversation develops in an unscripted and organic way. In true conversation, neither side knows in advance what either the other or the self will say. Redemption, for Rav Shagar, is the ability to truly speak to the other, and to speak without fear.
Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shagar each open different angles of what the גאולת הדיבור or redeemed speech, can look like, both on the personal front (בין אדם לעצמו), as well as the interpersonal front (בין אדם לחברו). May each and every one of us merit a Pesach of redemption, a Pesach in which relive redemption in our own lives, a Pesach in which we experience the verses in Psalms (118:5) –”מן המיצר קראתי קה ענני במרחב קה”. A Pesach in which those areas which are currently narrow and in which we currently experience only tunnel-vision, should be widened into the broader perspective of redemption – both in our personal lives in prayer and Torah study, as well as in our wider relationships with both family and friends.