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Parashat Va’era: Israel, Redemption, and That Fifth Cup of Wine

About The Author

Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Rabbi Marc Rosenstein is the Director Emeritus of the Israel Rabbinic Program of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He retired from the directorship Galilee Foundation for Value Education in 2013. Rabbi Rosenstein is the author of Galilee Diary: Reflections on Daily Life in Israel (URJ Press, 2010) and has resided at Moshav Shorashim in the Galilee since making aliyah in 1990.

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In the Passover Seder, after the meal, it is traditional to fill a cup and place it on the table “for Elijah the prophet.”  Generations of children have watched that cup to see if the wine level goes down, indicating that Elijah really has come in through the open door. 

Why do we do this?  Elijah, whose career during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in the 9th century BCE kingdom of Israel is recounted in I Kings 17 - II Kings 2, was known for his rejection of compromise—indeed, for his fanaticism.  He is also famous for not dying, but for ascending to heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2). Hence a folk tradition developed that he lives on, pursuing justice—and consistency—in the world. And a related tradition, expressed in Malachi 3:23-24, saw him as the harbinger of the messiah, preparing us for redemption:

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם י ה' הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃ וְהֵשִׁ֤יב לֵב־אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל־אֲבוֹתָ֑ם פֶּן־אָב֕וֹא וְהִכֵּיתִ֥י אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ חֵֽרֶם׃

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.  He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

This in turn led to a tradition, expressed in the Mishnah Eduyot 8:7, that part of that preparation will be resolving unresolved halakhic disputes. The modern Hebrew word for “tie” (as in a soccer game) is a cryptic Talmudic word for an unresolved dispute: תֵּיקוּ / teiku, whose folk etymology is as an acronym for Tishbi Yitaretz Kushiot Ubay’aot (“The Tisbite [Elijah] will resolve questions and problems”).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:1, Rabbi Benayah explains that the four cups to be drunk at the Passover seder correspond to the four verbs of redemption at the beginning of our parasha (Exodus 6:6-7):

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י ה' וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה' אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God… (Exodus 6:6-7)

Meanwhile, in many medieval manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 118a, the ruling that four cups be drunk at the seder appears as five cups.  And the Medieval (and later) commentators spill a great deal of ink in discussing if—and why—a fifth cup is required, optional, or not allowed.  In the end, four became the dominant position – but the custom developed of filling a fifth cup, in the hope that Elijah will resolve the dispute and tell us whether we must drink it; and when that happens, it will be a sign of the messiah’s approach.

What the commentators apparently didn’t discuss was the implication of the fifth cup for Rabbi Benayah’s explanation based in our parashah.  Note that the text of Exodus continues in the next verse (6:8):

וְהֵבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י ה'׃

I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord.

So it seems that there are five verbs of redemption, the fifth being bringing us into the Promised Land—which would imply five cups of wine for the seder!

Was redemption complete when the sea closed over the pursuing Egyptians and we were finally on our own in the desert? Or was it still a work in progress, awaiting the final stage, national sovereignty in our own land? The question of four cups or five can be seen as not just hairsplitting, but as a deep question about freedom, responsibility, and the meaning of Israel.

Moreover, note the many legal passages of the Torah that begin with the words: “When you come into the land” (e.g., Leviticus 25:2, Deuteronomy 6:1, 12:1, 18:9, 26:1). And note that the entry into the land, which was supposed to occur a few months after the Exodus, ended up being postponed for forty years.  It seems that during those years, Passover was not observed; upon arrival into Canaan (Joshua 5), Joshua performs a mass circumcision on the entire generation born in the desert, and then:

וַיַּחֲנ֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בַּגִּלְגָּ֑ל וַיַּעֲשׂ֣וּ אֶת־הַפֶּ֡סַח בְּאַרְבָּעָה֩ עָשָׂ֨ר י֥וֹם לַחֹ֛דֶשׁ בָּעֶ֖רֶב בְּעַֽרְב֥וֹת יְרִיחֽוֹ׃ וַיֹּ֨אכְל֜וּ מֵעֲב֥וּר הָאָ֛רֶץ מִמָּֽחֳרַ֥ת הַפֶּ֖סַח מַצּ֣וֹת וְקָל֑וּי בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ וַיִּשְׁבֹּ֨ת הַמָּ֜ן מִֽמָּחֳרָ֗ת בְּאָכְלָם֙ מֵעֲב֣וּר הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה ע֛וֹד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מָ֑ן וַיֹּאכְל֗וּ מִתְּבוּאַת֙ אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַהִֽיא׃

Encamped at Gilgal, in the steppes of Jericho, the Israelites offered the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month toward evening.  On the day after the Passover offering, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the country, unleavened bread and parched grain.  On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased; that year, they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan. (Joshua 5:10-12)

As we stepped away from the Reed Sea, we imagined ourselves to be free; and even after the revelation at Mt. Sinai, which ostensibly substituted servitude to God for servitude to Pharaoh, we were living in a kind of moratorium, where we didn’t have to make a living or run an economy or worry about social justice or proper governance or the rights of others among us.  We ate manna, complained, and dreamed of a “normal” national life in our own land.

And then we crossed the Jordan and discovered that the freedom of national self-determination is actually a heavy and never-ending responsibility, fraught with painful moral dilemmas: Do we really wipe out the natives? What shall we do about the poor? How shall we make war? Do we really need a central government? Are foreign alliances and foreign culture OK? Can we truly hear God’s voice any more, now that we have left the purity of the desert and entered the messiness of national life? Daunting, frustrating – but our parasha seems to imply that just escaping to the desert misses the point.

There is no free lunch. But we can drink a fifth cup. L’chaim

Sources for Further Study

(1)

God has led us through hell and said: Return ye to the Holy Land, children of men. So we followed His lead, and behold, "the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light" (Exodus 13.21).

It is dangerous to regard political affairs as religious events; yet since the time of Abraham we were taught that political affairs are to be understood within the orbit of God's concern. We must not expect the history of politics to read like a history of theology. Instances of God's care in history come about in seeming disarray, in scattered fashion – we must seek to comprehend the unity of the seemingly disconnected chords.

To the eyes of the heart, it is clear that returning to the land is an event in accord with the hidden Presence in Jewish history. It is a verification of a biblical promise. It has saved so many lives, it has called forth so much dedication and sacrifice, it has revived hope. Returning to the land is an event in which the past endures, in which the future is foreshadowed…

Infinitely greater than the sacrifice of Isaac was the martyrdom of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Treblinka, and others. The State of Israel was built on that martyrdom; its people are, to use a phrase of the prophet Zechariah (3:2), "a brand plucked from the fire."

The rescue of a people from physical oppression and even destruction from the corroding influence of assimilation … The reclamation of the land from the aridity and barrenness to which most of its soil had been condemned by the spoliation and neglect of man and nature, is an act of sanctification.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Mount Sinai and Mount Moriah,” in Israel: An Echo of Eternity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1969, pp. 136-138.

 

 

(2)

Israel expands the possible range of halakhic involvement in human affairs beyond the circumscribed frameworks of home and synagogue. Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. The moral quality of the army, social and economic disparities and deprivations, the exercise of power moderated by moral sensitivities, attitudes toward minorities, foreign workers, the stranger, tolerance and freedom of conscience – all these are areas that challenge our sense of covenantal responsibility.

The existence of the State of Israel, from this perspective, prevents Judaism from being confined exclusively to a culture of learning and prayer. The realm of symbolic holy time – the Sabbath, the festivals – is no longer the exclusive defining framework of Jewish identity. In returning to the land, we have created the conditions through which everyday life can mediate the biblical foundations of our covenantal destiny.

Rabbi David Hartman, “The Significance of Israel for the Future of Judaism,” http://www.hartmaninstitute.com/publications/recentarticles/David%20Hartman/SignificanceofIsrael.htm

 

(3)

Zionism has no connection to Judaism in its essential, religious sense of the obligation to observe Torah and Mitzvot; this is an absolute obligation imposed upon us regardless of particular historical circumstances or existential conditions. Zionism has no bearing on it whatsoever, since this task is binding on us in our land as in exile, in freedom as in bondage, and the effort to fulfill it continues and will continue so long as there are Jews who recognize it. Zionism as an aspiration to political-national independence is a legitimate Jewish aspiration, and the state is dear to us as its fulfillment. But is must not be given a religious aura. Only what is done for the sake of Heaven has religious significance. The category of holiness is inapplicable to the state. I deny that the establishment of the state of Israel and its very existence signal a beginning of the realization of the values of Judaism. Sovereignty is essential to the state, along with an executive apparatus and the power and authority of coercion. The state fulfills an essential need of the individual and the national community, but it does not thereby acquire intrinsic value.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “The Religious and Moral Significance of the Redemption of Israel,” In Eliezer Goldman (ed.), Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish state, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1992, pp. 117-118.