Making Things Right

We cannot go back. We have to live with what we do: words that have been said cannot be unsaid. Wounds may be healed, but they were still created in the first place. Man cannot turn time backward to undo our mistakes, and even G-d, who presumably can do anything (since He is G-d, right?), never seems to do it either. Even when G-d says that He regrets creating mankind, He does not start tapping the “delete” key, erase back to the beginning, and start again with some other protagonist. Instead, there is an ongoing action-reaction, stimulus and response, He said-we said… but always forward.

But at the same time, we cannot be bound to the past, hogtied by our own mistakes. We must find a way to move on, to move forward, as hard as it can be: letting bygones be bygones challenges us all!

I wanted to take this opportunity to show how a single word, traced from its use near the end back to the beginning of the Torah, casts a light on how we as individuals and as a society, can make things right, can help things that are out of whack go back to at least a semblance of a balanced equilibrium.

Hebrew is tricky to pin down using another language, especially because its meaning is defined not by modern usage, but by the context and usage elsewhere in the Torah. We can come to see the many facets of a single word not by how we might use a translated version of that word, but by through how it is used as in the text itself.

So here’s the word of the day: “geulah.” The word is usually translated as “redemption,” which is not really much help at all – what does “redemption” really mean, after all? Does it mean “repurchase,” or perhaps “free?” To figure it out, let’s see how it is used, with each usage helping us understand a different facet of the word. But instead of starting from the beginning (which is where a word is first defined in the Torah), I’d like to start from the end and work backward, for reasons which will become apparent. Here goes:

Blood avenger (Deut. 19: 6, 12, Numbers 35:12-27). One who seeks vengeance on a person who killed a loved-one, whether by accident or with premeditation. The Torah does not bar the blood avenger when his intended victim had killed with premeditation. You can see how “redemption” is not really the right translation in this context!

In this case, the word “geulah” is modified with “blood” – recalling Abel’s blood in the earth calling out to G-d for vengeance (Gen. 4:10). But geulah still suggests restoring some kind of equilibrium: if the avenger is intent and focused, the premeditated murderer dies in turn, and the vengeance can be justified and lawful.

Recipient of a Guilt Payment (Numbers 5:8) When a person wrongs another, and wishes to make amendments, he pays an amount to the redeemer, who is called a “goel” (same root word as geulah). A wrong was committed, and it is corrected.

Taking Back a Commitment (Lev. 27:13-33). The rules of promises and their redemption. Our pledges matter, and so we cannot lightly reverse or undo them. There is a price – and penalty – to be paid for changing our minds.

Redemption-Price: Reversion of property back to its original owners. (Lev. 25:24-54) Ensuring that land stays within the family of its original inheritors. The price of undoing a sale. Of all the ways the word is used, in this context “geulah” comes closest to going back in time, undoing what was first done. (Perhaps this is because this usage is about ownership of property, and not promises or wrongs done to others. It is a lot easier to change the name on a property deed than it is to right a wrong done to another.) This aspect of geulah is to disconnect from the land, acknowledge that there are limits to ownership. We are ordered to give property back.

An Untethered State: Freedom from Egypt (Ex. 6:6 and 15:13). Here the word is used as the mid-point of a progression: from slavery to geulah and then to a relationship with G-d. It is impossible to have a relationship with G-d while being slaves to Pharoah. The two are mutually exclusive (we can only serve one) – and so geulah represents the ground state – the place where our allegiance can flip from one to the next. Geulah is where, like the redeemed land, we go back to a ground state and then we can start anew.

And… (drum roll)…. The very first time the word geulah is used in the Torah encapsulates each and every one of its subsequent meanings!

Here goes:

“Geulah” is first used when Jacob blesses his grandchildren with words that are a familiar lullaby to observant Jewish children the world over: “May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads…” (Gen. 48:16)

This is actually a bit of a head-scratching phrase. Jacob does not refer to a single angel before this. And while Jacob (uniquely) saw angels quite frequently (i.e. when he left Canaan and his parents, perhaps when he procreated the sheep, and when he was coming back into the land), there was only one time when the Torah tells us that Jacob interacted with a single angel: this was the angel with whom Jacob wrestled until daybreak. (Note, too, that both episodes use the word “bless” – in the case of the wrestling match, Jacob demands a blessing. This parallel helps strengthen the connection).

If the angel with whom Jacob wrestled is the angel, then the question asks itself: How did this angel geulah Jacob from all evil? What happened to Jacob as a result of wrestling with the angel?

Well… immediately after the wrestling match, Jacob met with Esau, who was prepared to attack the brother who had stolen his birthright. Yet Jacob walked away unscathed, saved from a perilous situation. In one sense, Jacob was saved from the evil of Esau, but this is surely inadequate; Esau, after all, had a legitimate case against his brother. Jacob’s blessing years later was not to being saved from an evil but from all evil. Why does the text add the word, “all”?

I think that “evil” is a reference to all sorts of bad things – not just the physical risk that Esau represented to Jacob’s person and family, but also Jacob’s own actions (of stealing his brother’s blessing), and the consequences of those actions. Jacob escapes them all. Sure, coming up to the encounter with Esau, Jacob sent his brother a multitude of gifts, and bowed all those times to his brother, repeatedly calling him “my lord.” But Esau did not have to accept any of those things. I think Jacob did all he could, and credited the redemption to the angel he had wrestled the night before, the angel who had blessed him. Jacob escaped the consequences of his own bad acts, and he credits the angel.

The Jacob who had stolen the blessings in the first place was a younger, more naïve man. He impersonated his brother because his mother told him to, and it is clear in the text that the young Jacob was not able either to stand up to her, or own up to his father. Young Jacob was not really fully responsible for his actions – he did not fully comprehend what was going on, and in hindsight, especially when Esau was marching toward him with a small army, the theft must have looked like a pretty terrible idea.

Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren tells us a great deal about how, as an old man, he saw his own relationship with G-d. The same verse, read with the text before it, reads as follows:

“The G-d in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day, may the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lands.”

Note the confluence of “shepherd” with being saved from all evil. A shepherd takes care of his flock, a flock of rather gormless sheep and goats who get into all sorts of trouble if nobody is there to look after them. Sheep don’t do evil – they do stupid. And so if G-d is our shepherd, He protects us from our own stupid, just as a shepherd protects his flock from themselves.

The verse speaks of geulah from “evil” – and the first time that word is used is for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is the tree of self-awareness, of discovery, of knowing things.

If we are like sheep, losing a link to evil means going back to the Garden of Eden and ignorance. Losing knowledge of good and evil, and being geulah from all evil means going back to cluelessness, to the irresponsible behavior of sheep under the rod of a shepherd. (Indeed, it means going back to Adam and Eve who, though they ate from the fruit, did not literally suffer the promised punishment of death – G-d delivered consequences, but not the promised threat.)

A child may not be able to tell the difference between good and bad, and so will surely blunder into each. We don’t judge children who cannot know better, instead we try to teach and steer them toward good and productive paths. We redeem children for their mistakes, setting them back on their feet and facing the right direction. The angel who did geulah for Jacob can bless the children in turn in the same way: guide them forward into adulthood.

Geulah in the Torah is what happened when Jacob was given a “do over” with Esau after wrestling with the angel. Jacob was protected from his own actions, the theft that had embittered and frightened his parents, split the family apart, and that had sent him into dark exile. Why did G-d do it? Because G-d was Jacob’s shepherd, and shepherds take care of their flock, even those who get themselves into a fix.

Every element of the word geulah as used in the Torah elsewhere is thus found in this one usage: Esau is a blood avenger for what Jacob did to him (Deut. 19 and Numb 25); Esau swore to kill his brother (Gen. 27:41), and geulah is the way in which Esau can take back the commitment; Jacob pays the guilt payment to Esau for having wronged him (Num. 5:8); Jacob makes full restitution by reverting the property he acquired because of the stolen blessings back to Esau as its rightful owner; and in in so doing, Jacob goes from fear of his life back to a ground state, able to enter the land and renew his relationship with G-d, just as the Jewish people were free from Egypt so that they could properly reconnect with G-d.

All in one word, and how it is used.

Another @iwe and @susanquinn production!

Comments are welcome!