The Cups of Redemption

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, contains the Torah’s source for the custom of drinking four cups of wine at the Passover Seder. The four cups, represent the “four languages of redemption” that are mentioned in this week’s parasha.

In the opening verses of parashat Va’eira, the Al-mighty informed Moses that He had established a covenant with the patriarchs to give them the land of Canaan. Furthermore, G-d states that He has heard the groans of the Children of Israel who are enslaved in Egypt, and that He has remembered His covenant.

It is clear that G-d is about to intervene on behalf of His people.

In Exodus 6:6-7, G-d declares, “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, I am the L-rd: וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם, וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים. וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵא־לֹקִים, וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם , I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am Hashem, the L-rd your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”

These four languages of redemption: 1. “I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” 2. “I shall rescue you.” 3. “I shall redeem you.” and 4. “I shall take you to Me for a people,” are represented at the Passover Seder by the four cups of wine.

There is also a fifth language of redemption, found in Exodus 6:8, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי, לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב , “and I shall bring you to the land about which I raised my hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This fifth language of redemption, in which G-d promises to bring His people to the land of Israel, has not been entirely fulfilled–-hence the fifth cup of wine, that is designated as the Cup of Elijah. This cup is filled, but not drunk.

In the Talmud, Elijah the prophet is the ultimate resolver of all unresolved questions, including whether there should be four or five cups of wine at the Passover Seder. As a compromise, the fifth cup is designated as the Cup of Elijah, in acknowledgment of the not-yet fulfilled Divine promise to bring all of the People of Israel to the land of Israel.

Rabbi Asher Weiss in his erudite volume, Rav Asher on the Parasha, offers a profound insight into the Torah’s four languages of liberation. Rabbi Weiss suggests that these languages of liberation reflect the different levels of oppression and suffering that slaves are generally subjected to.

There are slaves, suggests Rabbi Weiss, who suffer unceasingly under the hands of cruel and tyrannical masters, who mercilessly abuse their slaves, both physically and mentally. There are, however, says Rabbi Weiss, more fortunate slaves who have more merciful masters, who may not suffer from the physical and mental abuse at the hands of the master, but suffer from the backbreaking labors imposed upon them. Even more fortunate are those slaves who are only required to perform menial tasks, such as light household work. These slaves also suffer, perhaps not physically, but emotionally, since they are subject to the will of another human being and do not have the freedom to lead their lives according to their own will.

According to Rabbi Weiss, when it describes the liberation of our ancestors from Egypt, the Torah addresses all these aspects of slavery:

Pharaoh held B’nei Yisrael in an iron grasp of horrific wickedness. He subjected them to death, torture and grueling labors. From all these harsh decrees, Hashem rescued us. He “removed us” from beneath the burden of cruel abuse. He “rescued us” from the difficult labors they imposed upon us. He “redeemed us” from the degradation of slavery. Yet paramount in significance, was the great kindness that He showed us, by “bringing us” to Him, and making us into His nation.

While we, who live in freedom, may not be physically enslaved, we are, nevertheless, often subject to great rigors and challenges in our lives. Some of us are greatly oppressed by other members of society, by parents, spouses, children, bosses, and teachers, figures of authority and individuals who have significant control over our lives or our environment. The emotional punishments that we may actually be subjected to may be as severe as the pain from brutal blows, broken bones and broken spirits.

Others are spared the emotional “torture,” but find the day-to-day responsibilities terribly burdensome, making it virtually impossible to find personal fulfillment, joy in life and reason to smile. The responsibilities we often face, are simply overwhelming and never let up.

Others, have it easier, born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they never seem to have to worry about money or finances, and never have to work too hard. But, even these blessed individuals, often do not feel free or independent, because even those with minimal responsibilities, find that achieving personal satisfaction is a most difficult challenge.

It is only when we feel embraced by the Divine that we are truly liberated. As rabbinic tradition teaches in Ethics of the Fathers, 6:2, אֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד בַּתּוֹרָה , there is no one who is truly free, except one who engages in Torah.

It’s only when G-d takes us to Him, or more likely when we bring ourselves to G-d, that we feel truly free and liberated. It is only then, that we can fully celebrate the Festival of Freedom, our own personal Passover, our own personal exodus, and our own personal splitting of the Red Sea.

May you be blessed.