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A breeze of relief

A friend recently eulogized her mother. She told a story of a midlife painting class her mom enrolled in. One day she arrived to find a gentlemen sitting where she liked to sit. She asked him to move. He called her bossy. Over time, they painted together and grew friendlier.

Many months later, Betty noticed Dominic’s absence. He had begun suffering from bouts with depression. She called him and said, “You once called me bossy. Well, now I am going to be bossy and tell you to come back to painting class. We miss you.” She persisted. He eventually came back.

Years later, on the occasion of a Mayor’s retirement in a nearby city, Dominic spoke a the unveiling of a portrait he had been commissioned to paint. Betty was seated in the front row. He rose to thank her for bringing him back to painting. “Her persistence saved my life” he said.

We live in times when it’s common to define people by a single trait. He is cold-hearted. She is self-absorbed. Flattening people can be useful. It makes it easier to dehumanize and depose them. But Betty’s story reminds that it’s also wrong to flatten a trait. Sometimes, bossiness can save a life.

This week’s portion of Torah widens the reach of an important value: the capacity to redeem. The word itself isn’t easy to grasp. On a grand scale, the Exodus is a story of redemption. Its liberating lesson is intended for all people, everywhere and always. The Hebrew word for redeem, ga’al, recurs in our portion more than anywhere else in the Torah. It’s mentioned 19 times, perhaps corresponding to the 19 blessings that comprise the daily Standing Prayer (Amidah). We learn that land and property can get redeemed. A person, too, can experience redemptive restoration.

A common source for feeling misery, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, comes from seeing oneself “like a borrower who doesn’t repay” (Pirke Avot 2:14). You forget that life is a gift. Your life is a trust. You are not alone in some empty universe. Your life is more than a soliloquy. Someone trusts you. And you can return that trust. This is the redemptive impulse at work. It can restore your dignity and purpose.

Here’s the key: it needs to happen freely. It has to be chosen. When it’s coerced, it feels like repaying an obligatory debt you owe. This makes it transactional instead of trust-building.

Also, when you’re captive to fear and anger and exhaustion, when you’re feeling worn down or torn down or let down, it can be really hard to act freely. But awareness, with the help of Shabbat’s quietude and rest, can create an opportunity for choice.

Looking around, it can be hard to believe that the ark of the moral universe is bending toward justice. Redemption on a large scale seems remote. But looking to our inner lives, it may be closer than we think. Relief may breeze in for a visit. We get to decide to let it stay. Sometimes what we need isn’t only what we’re looking for.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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