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Rabbinic Insights about the Word “Yeshua”

Passover is approaching and in Jewish homes it is will be a time of retelling the story of the Exodus. It will also be a time of remembering lessons taught by generations of rabbis, as well as family traditions that are linked to story. The following account provides a very interesting insight into the word “yeshua” which appears in the Hebrew text of Exodus. I have added underlines to highlight some important points.

One of the great nineteenth-century Hasidic masters taught the idea of partnership another way. “Where is God?” asked Menahem Mendel of Kotzk. “Everywhere,” replied his students. “No, my children,” he responded. “God is not everywhere. He is where you let Him in.”

The Torah’s discussion of the Exodus from Egypt, the para-dogmatic event that shapes the core of our understanding of redemption, illustrates our point. Having just left Egypt, the Jewish people find themselves surrounded. In front of them is the sea; behind them, the Egyptians. Turning to Moses, they complain, “Are there no graves in Egypt that you’ve taken us to die in the desert?” Moses reassures them, “God will do battle for you, and you can remain silent” (Exod. 14:10-14). In the next sentence, God tells Moses, “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to move forward” (Exod. 14:15). God’s approach to the situation is rather striking in view of Moses’s promise just moments earlier that God would imminently succor the people. When one considers that moving forward would lead the Jews directly into the churning waters of the sea, the moment appears bleak indeed.

To understand what is happening here, we have to look at the exact words used in the Hebrew text. Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, a twentieth-century Talmudist, notes a distinction between two similar but different terms used in the Exodus story, hatzalah and yeshuah. Both terms relate to being saved. Hatzalah, however, requires no action on the part of the person being saved. He or she is completely passive. Yeshuah, on the other hand, is a process whereby the recipient must do his or her share in the rescue.

When the Jews first emerged as a people in Egypt, we experienced hatzalah. The haggadah that we read at the Passover seder tells us that God, and God alone, took us out of Egypt. Just as a newborn is protected by its parents, so too were the newborn Jewish people protected by God. It is therefore appropriate that throughout the first chapters of the book of Exodus the operative word is hatzalah (Exod. 6:6).

Once out of Egypt, however, the situation changed. Much like a child who grows up, the Jewish people were expected to assume responsibilities. Although Moses thought hatzalah would continue, God in effect declares, “No! The sea will split, but only after you do your share and try to cross on your own.” Hence the shift in expression from hatzalah to yeshuah just as the Jews stand near the sea (Exod. 14:30).

The master eleventh-century commentator Rashi makes an important point about God’s instructing the Jewish people to move forward. Rashi says that God proclaims “this is not the time for lengthy prayer.” The message here is clear. “You have already immersed yourself in prayer,” God says. “Now is the time for action.” The Talmud records that the sea does not split until after the Israelites try to cross on their own.

Generation after generation faces its moment like those that stood looking at the sea in front of them as they heard the sound of the Egyptians closing in behind them. Prayer has a time and place, but a point may come when taking actions and moving forward into the unknown is required. When you hear the word yeshua remember “now is the time for action.” That describes the message of Yeshua to his generation.

Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World By Rabbi Avraham Weiss © 2008; Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT; pp. 6-8.

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Jim Myers


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