Our sages were aware of the stage-like progression from infancy to maturity to senility and ultimately death. Judah Ben Tema anticipated the insights of modern psychologists by teaching in Ethics of the Fathers (5:25) that “…five years old is the age to begin studying Scripture, 10 for Mishna, 13 for the obligation of the commandments…, 18 for marriage, 20 for seeking a livelihood…, 50 for giving counsel…, 90 for a bent back…; at 100, one is as if he were dead and gone from the world.”
In our own times, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson taught in his book Childhood and Society that only after we master specific developmental tasks at each stage can we truly mature.
Nations too must go through stages. This lesson is taught in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion. The Almighty commands Moses to tell the Jewish people they will go through at least four distinct stages in their progress from slavery to freedom: “I will take you out…, I will rescue you…, I will redeem you…, and I will take you as My people….” (Exodus 6:6-7). Some even add, “I will bring you into the land….” (ibid. 8)
These four “expressions of redemption” correspond to the four cups of wine at the Passover seder. Commentators from ancient times to today have seen in these expressions four distinct stages through which a nation must pass to transcend its chaotic beginnings and become a cohesive cultural entity.
Rabbi Mayer Simcha of Dvinsk in his masterful work Meshech Hochma concludes that a nation can reach its full potential only if it first becomes distinct and separate from its surroundings. Hence, the Almighty’s first promise is that He will “take us out.” Then it must demonstrate it is worthy of “rescue” by developing a model of internal cooperation and self-protection. From there, it must develop a self-concept of freedom by being “redeemed,” no longer identifying with the persecutor. And finally, it must develop national pride, common morals, and a sense of destiny. That is what it means to be “taken as My people.”
If there is that fifth stage, then it is only after mastering the four initial tasks that there is hope for the Almighty to “bring us into the land.”
Rabbi Mayer Simcha demonstrates that the sequence of the Passover ritual parallels the four stages necessary for the formation of a nation and that these stages correspond to the spiritual and religious development of the individual.
In today’s generation, there is a tendency to expect instant change and swift growth. Our Torah portion, indeed our entire tradition, teaches us that such expectations are unrealistic. One can reach psychological maturity and spiritual perfection only by proceeding through a serial progression of painful life experiences.
If our interest is politics, then we must recognize that nations develop and grow by slow changes. If psychology is our concern, we must be aware of the need to thoroughly master each developmental task that life presents before we can attempt to advanced levels of maturity.
And if religion and spirituality are the center of our lives, then we must learn the lesson of the “four expressions for redemption.”