By Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl
During the Passover Seder, the four cups of wine mark the four promises of God: “I am YHVH. I will free you… I will deliver you... I will redeem you… I will take you to be my people (Exodus 6.6-7).” In the discussion about this in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rabbi Tarfon suggests that an additional cup of wine should be consumed to reflect a fifth promise: “I will bring you to the Land that I promised to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov.” According to many commentators, this is the origin of the Cup of Elijah - a fifth cup that reflects the hope for a messianic redemptive return to the Land of Israel.
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, Rabbi Menachem Kasher unsuccessfully proposed that after Israeli independence we should consume that fifth cup. In our home, even though we don’t drink the fifth cup, we do pour a bit from our individual cups into the Cup of Elijah to indicate that we join with God to play a part in the act of redemption. Rabbi Michael Marmur (CCAR Journal, 2007) suggests interpreting the cups of wine at the Seder as indicative of different Jewish perspectives on contemporary life, with the fifth cup representative of the role of Israel in unifying our people.
The first cup is full, reminding us of the blessing of sufficiency. This cup is for those Jews who feel blessed by our families, by having enough, and by the virtues which guide our lives - kindness and hesed, tsedakah and justice, humanity and mentschlikhkeit. This is a cup of fulfillment.
The second cup is empty, signaling us that there is real poverty, powerlessness and pain in this world. We have glimpsed this on the streets of Toronto, in the news clips from Darfur, and in the missile attacks on Sderot. This cup calls us to act in solidarity with those who still experience life as problematic and painful. This is a cup of challenge.
The third cup is overflowing, pointing to those who seek enlightenment, ecstasy or serenity. There are spiritual seekers who want something that will give transcendent meaning to their daily lives. Whether through kabbalah, meditation, or yoga, these Jews want something beyond the ordinary. This is the cup of rapture.
The fourth cup is broken, calling us to realize that the Holocaust profoundly disrupted the lives of so many of our people. Emil Fackenheim wrote that we cannot imagine Jewish life as ever being the same after the Shoah, even as we are bidden to continue to live as Jews. This cup calls on Jews to exercise power so that we will never again become victims. This is the cup of rupture.
Rabbi Marmur writes that each of these cups is “important and each is deficient. A commitment to [individual] happiness outside of history [may create] walls” that cut off our personal lives from the rest of the world, as if our own homes and family are enough. A concern for others’ problems may bind us to the legitimacy of our own needs. A search for spiritual fulfillment can sometimes shift from self-development to self-indulgence. An awareness of rupture can too easily slide into a justification of every act in terms of a rampant survivalism.”
In Hebrew, mizug is the pouring of wine. The same term refers to the blending of the many different Jews who have come to this tiny country. In a deep sense, Israel is mizug galuyot, the mixing of the diversity of Diaspora Jewish life into a new blend. Israel pours for us a blended fifth cup of wine, for while it has provided survival, security and stability for our people, it is also full of poverty, pain, and the challenge of making peace. Just as the search for spiritual uplift through meditation or mitzvot is a part of life in the Holy Land for many Jews, so too is awareness of the Holocaust a constant reminder of the need for strength, swiftness and self-sufficiency. Israel is a complex country seeking a civic culture that will blend the wine of all the initial four cups.
May each of the cups you drink during Pesach add to your self-awareness and understanding of the variety of Jewish life. When you sit for seder, think about the historic issues Israel resolved, the contemporary challenges it faces, and how Israel might blend and unify the various aspects of your Jewish yearnings and identity.
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair in Rabbinics and Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Canada. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute
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