For many of us, redemption is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. We know what it means to redeem a coupon. But what do we mean when we say that God redeems us?
The Pesach story tells us that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and that God redeemed us from slavery. That's one kind of redemption: being rescued from dire straits, from the constriction of Mitzrayim.
The name Mitzrayim stems from the root צר, which means constricted or narrow. Slavery is a form of physical and spiritual constriction. God busted us out of there, bringing us to the sometimes-terrifying wide-open-spaces of freedom, the open spaces of wilderness in which we could actively choose to enter into relationship with something greater than ourselves.
And, of course, the Pesach seder is filled with invocations of a future redemption, the redemption which will mark our entry into the messianic age when the work of perfecting creation is complete. Or the redemption which will arise when Moshiach, the messiah, walks among us bringing transformation. (Depends on how you understand "messiah," among other things. I wrote a somewhat clumsy discursus on that in 2004; really, for a better sense of my understanding of messianic time, read my 2011 poem On that day.)
The symbol of that future redemption is Elijah's Cup, the cup of juice or wine on every seder table from which, tradition says, Elijah invisibly sips at every seder in the world. Elijah is the harbinger of messianic redemption, the prophet who announces the coming of a world transformed and healed.
The seder meal bridges the redemption that happened back then, at the moment of the Exodus, and the redemption which awaits us in days to come. When we call God our Redeemer, we are affirming that God is that force which lifts us out of difficult circumstances, which helps us to become better than we were before, with Whom we partner in trying to heal the broken world.
Each of us is commanded to experience the story of the Exodus as though it had happened to us, ourselves, not to some ancient and possibly imaginary ancestors eons ago. God lifts us out of slavery and constriction every day, if we are willing and able to reach out of ourselves and yearn for more. Redemption isn't just in our distant past and in the unimaginable future. Redemption can be now.
For more on this: try Kolel's Reb on the Web article Redemption.
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