Vaera: On the partnership between God and Jews


Exodus 6:2-9:35

Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

The calendar says January, but in synagogue we can almost smell the scents of the seder, as the weekly parashah brings us the majestic narrative of the Exodus.

"God spoke to Moses and said to him…`Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am HaShem. I will free you (vehotseiti) from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you (vehitsalti) from their bondage. I will redeem you (vega'alti) with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you (velakahti) to be My people, and I will be your God. And you will know that I, HaShem, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians'" (Exodus 6:6-7).

To the casual reader, this passage may seem to be a straightforward summary of the Exodus story. But the rabbis, determined to savor every bit of divine information in the words of the Torah, examine this passage with exquisite care. They take special note of the way in which this passage highlights four elements of divine intervention in the Exodus narrative, described in the four verbs, "I will free you," "I will deliver you," "I will redeem you" and "I will take you."

The rabbis eventually give these four verbs a name, the arba leshonot hage'ulah, the "four words of redemption." According to the Talmud, the four cups of wine at the seder are derived from these four words of redemption. (Some rabbis argued that another verb, "I will bring you into the land," veheiveiti, in verse 8, deserves its own cup of wine at the seder. Others disagreed. The compromise: only four cups are required at the seder, but a fifth cup is placed on the table for Elijah, who will resolve all unanswered questions when messianic times come.)

Why, though, does the Torah use these particular expressions? What does this passage suggest about the essence of God's role in the Exodus story?

The renowned Bible scholar, Nehama Leibowitz (in "Studies in Shemot, Part One," Page 123), saw a thematic progression rising through the four descriptive verbs. The first, "I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians," represents the most basic, physical level of liberating the Israelites from the burdensome tasks of slavery. This level of liberation was accomplished through human effort, as Moses negotiated with Pharoah.

The second level, "I will deliver you from bondage," requires God's direct intervention, suspending the normal laws of nature to bring the people to freedom.

The third level, "I will redeem you," is reminiscent of the process by which one family member redeems another who has fallen into slavery (see Leviticus 25:25). Here, God is seen as acting like family, initiating an intimate connection with the people Israel.

Finally, "I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God," is a pledge of intimate partnership, a kind of divine-human marriage.

Thus, the commentator Benno Jacob (quoted in Leibowitz, Page 123) sees the four verbs representing the dynamic movement of God's involvement in the Exodus story. God begins ("I will free you") with a pledge to bring justice to the Israelites, then is moved to act ("I will deliver you") in compassion for the people. Then God pledges to redeem, the act of an intimate family member. Ultimately, God offers a promise of divine love and partnership.

God's relationship with the people moves from the distant stance of champion for justice, to the more caring posture of One who cares deeply for their pain, to the role of family member and ultimately, to an intimate relationship with Israel.

From this perspective, the Exodus story becomes the foundational story of God's love affair with the people Israel. The next piece of text supports this view, bringing us the climactic promise, "And you shall know that I, HaShem, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians." The point is not just that God is powerful, not even that God cares deeply for justice. In this account, the goal and climax of the Exodus story occurs when Israel comes to deeply know and appreciate God. The story is meant to be the beginning of an everlasting divine-human partnership, based on justice, compassion and love.

May this story, as always, inspire us to fulfill the part that we are meant to play as God's loving partners in the world.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at