It is a cornerstone principle of Jewish faith that God created the world and all that is in it. In the kiddush for Shabbat, we state that God gave us Shabbat as a zikaron l’ma’aseh v’reishit / “reminder of the work of creation.” Once a week, we are to reflect on God’s awesome powers. In the very next sentence of the kiddush, we say ki hu yom techila l’mikra’ei kodesh zecher liy’tzi’at Mitzrayim / “As first among our sacred days, [Shabbat] recalls the Exodus from Egypt.” This is, arguably, the other cornerstone principle: that our God, who heard our cries and took us out of Egypt, is a benevolent God who cares about humanity and the Jewish people and intervenes in history to do what is just and what is right. God is the God of creation and redemption.
It seems clear, though, that neither of these ideas, creation or redemption, should be thought of as static. “Creation” does not mean the singular act described in Genesis 1 and 2 that brought the world into being. Nor does “redemption” refer only to the exodus from Egypt. In our daily prayers, we refer to God as ham’chadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit / “the One who daily, eternally, renews in goodness the work of creation.” Likewise, we pray daily for redemption: “Tzur Yisra’el! Rock of Israel! Arise to the help of Israel. Deliver, as You promised, Judah and Israel!”
The theme of creation is ongoing in the Torah. God creates the world. God destroys the world. God re-creates the world through Noah. God creates the Jewish people through Abraham. And in this week’s parasha (parashat Bo), we get another intimation of God’s power of creation (and destruction).
There are many noteworthy parallels between the story of the ten plagues and the exodus and creation. Many of the images, and much of the language of the creation story is imported into the exodus story to signal the relationship. The plague of darkness, which we read about this week, is a case in point. Rabbi Shai Held notes that the ninth plague restores the world (of the Egyptians, at least) to the primordial darkness out of which God created light in the first place. God brings a “darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched… People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Ex. 11:21, 23) Just as God separated the light from the darkness in Genesis, so God separates the light from the darkness in Exodus.
The story of the Exodus can be seen as yet another story of creation. This time, though, it’s not a physical world that God is creating – it is a moral world. Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil, will be vanquished. His petty empire of destruction and death will be destroyed and in its stead will emerge a nation guided by Torah: creation and life will be the watchwords of this new people. Justice and morality will be their beacons, the pillar of cloud to guide them by day and the pillar of fire to guide them by night.
Our country witnessed the (ultimately) successful and peaceful transfer of power on Wednesday. The beginning of any new administration represents a moment of possibility. The work of creation is ongoing: the incoming president has the power to shape our standing in the world, our national health (physical, emotional, and spiritual), and a host of things that affect our daily lives. These are mighty powers indeed – powers that we bestow upon our leaders. We score the results every four years in an effort to keep “renewing in goodness the work of creation.” The president also has the ability to guide a national sense of morality, getting us closer to redemption and salvation, guiding us toward a “more perfect union.”
Of course, creation and beginnings are about promise. Redemption is the bookend to that – it is about realization. As the Israelites left Egypt and headed toward Sinai, their hearts, too, must have been filled with promise and possibility. It remains to be seen what our new administration will bring. But we can at least take hope in the aspirations of our new president as he articulated them on Wednesday:
…Together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.
Of unity, not division.
Of light, not darkness.
An American story of decency and dignity.
Of love and of healing.
Of greatness and of goodness.
May this be the story that guides us.
The story that inspires us.
The story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history.
We met the moment.
That democracy and hope, truth and justice, did not die on our watch but thrived.
That our America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world.
That is what we owe our forebearers, one another, and generations to follow.
Let us pray for our new government as it tackles the epic tasks of creation and redemption.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach, a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine