In his influential 1985 book entitled Exodus and Revolution, political philosopher Michael Walzer made the case that many of the world’s progressive, reformists, and revolutionary movements find their roots in the Biblical narrative of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Walzer, however, was not the first thinker to root liberation in the Biblical text. In his introduction to the Book of Exodus, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nahmanides, or, according to his acronym RaMBaN (d. 1277), describes the second book of the Torah as “Sefer Ha-Ge’ulah” – The Book of Redemption.
Yet any cursory reading of the Book of Exodus would discover that less than half of the book pertains to the story of the exodus and liberation. The bulk of the Book of Exodus is devoted to events in the wilderness, including the great revelatory event at Sinai and the detailed instructions and construction of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that served the Israelites’ religious needs. For Nahmanides, this is problematic. The preponderance of events and activities apart from the exodus calls into question his name for the Book of Exodus, not to mention its theme.
Nahmanides responds to this challenge by offering an insightful explanation of what redemption is about, distinguishing between complete redemption (ge’ulah shlemah) and incomplete redemption. Liberation from Egyptian bondage – where the exodus story ends – brought incomplete redemption. The Israelites were political and socially free but unredeemed. It was only after receiving the Torah and going through the process of spiritual growth in the wilderness did the Israelites achieve complete redemption. That spiritual growth began with atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf and culminated with the construction of the Tabernacle. All of these episodes are included in the Book of Exodus necessarily, not randomly. So it is entirely fitting for the Book of Exodus to conclude with the construction of the Tabernacle.
Beyond his characterization of the Book of Exodus, Nahmanides also indirectly teaches that success, or in this case redemption, is not something that occurs fully and immediately. In retrospect, success is incremental, the product of events and experiences that, individually and serially, may be taxing. But with forbearance, the final outcome can be glorious.