Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Rav Y.B. Soloveitchik 

Redemption is a fundamental category in Judaic historicaÌ thinking and experiencing. Our history was initiated by a Divine act of redemption and, we are confident, will reach its finale in a Divine act of ultimate redemption.  What is redemption? Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center.; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-making and history-conscious. 

Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non-history-making, nonhistory-involved group leads a non-communing. and therefore a silent, unfree existence. 

Like redemption, prayer too is a basic experiential category in Judaism. We have appeared, within the historical arena, as a prayerful nation. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon all prayed. Through prayer they achieved the covenant with God, and through prayer, we expect eventually to realize that covenant. The Halacha has viewed prayer and redemption as two inseparable ideas. The Halacha requires that the Silent Prayer be preceded, without a break, by the benediction of גאל ישראל, which proclaims God as the Redeemer of Israel.

Redemption, we have stated, is identical with communing, or with the revelation of the word, i.e. the emergence of speech. When a people leaves a mute world and enters a world of sound, speech and song, it becomes a redeemed people~ a free people. In other words, a mute life is identical with bondage; a speech endowed life is a free life. The slave lives in silence, if such a meaningless existence may be called life [The use of the terms speech and word should not be understood in the colloquial physical sense, but in the metaphysical, phenomenological sense. When I say the slave is speechless, I mean to convey the idea that he is deprived of the meaningfulness of speech.]. He has no message to deliver. In contrast with the slave, the free man bears a message, has a good deal to tell, and is eager to convey his life story to anyone who cares to listen. No wonder the Torah has, four times, emphasized the duty of the father - a liberated slave - to tell his children, borh into freedom, the story of his liberation. Free man who is eager to tell his story, is always surrounded by an audience willng. to listen to his story. The slave has neither a story nor a curious audience. Moreover, he is not merely a speechless being, but a mute being, devoid not only of the word, but of the meaningful sound as well.

What is responsible for the dumbness of the slave? The lack of a basic experience, namely that of suffering or distress, which is perhaps the most central aspect of the human I-awareness. Suffering is not pain. Though colloquially the two words are used as synonyms, they signify two different experiences. Pain is a natural sensation, a physiological reaction of the organism to any kind of abnormality or tissue pathology. It is, as Aristotle already knew, a built-in mechanical signal that warns man whenever his physical existence is menaced from within; it is an integral part of the body's security system. Pain, as instinctual reaction, is immediate and non-reflective. As such, it is not restricted to humans: the beast is also exposed to and acquainted with pain. 

Suffering or distress, in contradistinction to pain, is not a sensation but an experience, a spiritual reality known only to humans (the animal does not suffer). This spiritual reality is encountered by man whenever he stands to lose either his sense of existential security (as in the case of an incurable disease) or his existential dignity (as in the case of public humiliation). Whenever a merciless reality clashes with the human existential awareness, man suffers and finds himself in distress. The animal is exposed to pain; so is the slave. When the slave meets with pain he reacts like the animal, uttering a sharp, shrill sound. However, the howl of the beast, like the shriek of the slave, lasts a moment in the darkness and hush of the night. In a split second all is silent again. There is no aftermath to the pain-sensation of the animal or the slave; there follows no complaint, no request, no protest, no question of why and what. The slave does not know suffering, lacking, as he does, the very existential need awareness which generates suffering. He is never in distress because he has no human needs. The needs of a slave are, like his shriek, not human: the etiology of his needs is exclusively biologicaL. The absence of suffering mitigates the sharpness of pain. Former inmates of concentration camps have told me that they had, with the passage of time, become inured to any pain or torture, as if they had been totally anesthetized. They were dumb beings. They not only stopped speaking, but ceased to emit coherent sounds, as well.