Yom Kippur Afternoon 5773
Temple Sinai, Reno, NV
As our High Holiday worship draws near to completion, we arrive – in this year’s sermon series – at the blessing that concludes this package of blessings surrounding and including the Shema. This last blessing, G’ullah or the “Blessing of Redemption,” proclaims God’s saving power.
This final blessing is a lengthy one that initially has nothing to do with the theme of redemption. It begins “True and established and accurate and enduring and right . . . are these words,” and was probably originally meant to confirm the creedal affirmation of the Shema, which it followed. Sometime in the first or second century, this prayer was expanded to include a statement of faith in redemption. The liturgical part of that expansion, that we most readily recognize, is the Mi Chamocha, which is one line among many that lift up the Exodus from Egypt as central example of God’s deliverance.
Now, redemption is a religious theme shared by many faiths. The notion that somehow and some time and some way, we will be saved – presumably by a Redeemer God – is certainly not unique to Judaism. When we pray for redemption we are ultimately praying to return to some lost and/or promised state of harmony, freedom, and peace. In our flawed and broken world, this is a longing that religious practitioners, of probably all faiths, share. Our lives too are equally imperfect, which is why our High Holiday liturgy is so filled with supplication for a return to individual and communal wholeness.
But what may be unique to Judaism is that our hope for redemption is not located primarily in some distant hereafter. Instead, our paradigmatic redemptive moment is the Exodus from Egypt, an event that took place in history – albeit religious history. We end “the Shema and its Blessings” with this call to salvation in the here and now. The Israelites stood safely and free on the far side of the Reed Sea in real time. There was no doctrinal need to wait for salvation in some yet-to-be-achieved world-to-come. There is no need – no excuse, then – for us to do so either.
Which is quite the perfect note, upon which to end, as our Yom Kippur “gates of repentance and redemption” are about to close. For us, salvation is not some distant dream. It may be a dream, to be sure – but it’s a dream attainable in the real world. We are redeemed, our communities are redeemed, even our world is redeemed by actions of justice and love in the here-and-now. Which, ultimately, is what this High Holy Days introspection, prayer and atonement has been all about.
“When will redemption come?” our prayer book rhetorically asks. “When we do the work of redemption ourselves” is the unequivocal answer. Our Gu’llah, or redemption prayer, celebrates the Exodus as our people’s root experience of liberation. And at the same time it challenges us to imagine, and then make real, a world in which the liberation of some is not dependent on the destruction of others, a world in which freedom and justice and love and compassion inform our every choice and action, a world in which wholeness has finally been obtained.
May our work, of these High Holy Days soon past, play some part in bringing that world into being. Then, indeed, we shall be sealed for a most excellent year.