Parashat Va'era: Here, but not quite there

God created an incomplete, imperfect world and promised redemption.

eliyahu cup 88 (photo credit: )
eliyahu cup 88
(photo credit: )
The most commonly accepted source for the proverbial four cups of wine between the various segments of the Pessah Seder is to be found in our portion of Va'era, which cites four expressions of redemption: "I will free you from under the burdens of the Egyptians [the killings of the male babies], and I will rescue you from their work [the actual enslavement]. I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments [the 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea]. I shall take you to Me for a nation and I shall be for you as a God [in the Revelation at Sinai]. And I shall bring you to the land" (Exodus 6:6-8). Clearly, there are five - and not four - expressions of redemption. So what happened to the fifth cup? The simplest explanation is that not only did the slave-desert generation not make it to the Land (because of the sin of the scouts), but the compilation of the Seder Haggada took place after the destruction of the Temple and during the Babylonian exile; indeed, the mystical night of the Seder opens with the declaration, "Here is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt... Now we are here. Next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year may we be free men." Since we were living in exile, it hardly seemed logical to drink a fifth cup for having been returned to our homeland. From this perspective, we can understand why - once God allowed us to return to our Jewish homeland - Rabbi Menachem Kasher (Torah Shleima, Divrei Menahem) endorsed reinstituting the fifth cup (to be poured just before Hallel Hagadol) in accordance with the view of many Gaonim and Rishonim (as well as my own interpretation, A Haggadah Happening). The Mishna (in the 10th chapter of Tractate Pessahim) establishes the four cups of wine, and then speaks of an additional birkat hashir on Hallel Hagadol, which deals with universal redemption by the God of the cosmos who redeems Israel but also grants bread to all flesh, whose loving-kindness lasts forever and extends to the entire world. It is followed by the Nishmat prayer: "May the soul of every living creature bless Your name, Lord our God," and concludes with a blessing to the universal God of thanksgivings, a Master of wonders … the life of all worlds." Since the prophetic vision of the Temple is that of a "house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56) and the place from which all nations will be inspired to "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks," it is especially appropriate - after having returned to our land but not yet to the Temple - that we pour a fifth cup for universal redemption. The one question which remains, however - especially for those who do pour and drink a fifth cup - is why do we also continue to pour a cup for Elijah? We've returned to our homeland, we anxiously await the universal Redemption; these ideals are embedded in the fifth cup. What does it add? And then, just about a year ago, I had the privilege of attending the wedding of Rachel Sharansky, daughter of Natan and Avital, at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel near Jerusalem (Rachel's sister Hannah was married at the same place two weeks ago). Sharansky is a genuine hero of our time, a prisoner of Zion held captive behind the Iron Curtain, rescued by the indefatigable efforts of his courageous wife Avital and the grassroots activist movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry which developed in America of the '60s and '70s. He became a minister in the Israeli government and is a celebrated author and spokesman on behalf of freedom, democracy and morality. At the conclusion of his daughter's marriage ceremony, before the usual breaking of the glass, Sharansky reminisced about his own wedding ceremony 34 years before. "It took place in a one-room apartment in Moscow, behind closed doors and shuttered windows, with a bare quorum of 10 men including the groom and rabbi. A sheet served as a marriage canopy and, with the exception of the rabbi, everyone was ignorant of the meaning behind the ritual. But then, when the glass was shattered underfoot, everyone understood. We all understood destruction and mourning, we all understood Jewish victimization and sacrifice." And when Sharansky was taken from his bride by the KGB that very night, everyone understood even better… "But now that we have finally returned to Jerusalem and are miraculously standing under a nuptial canopy with our daughter and son-in-law, in sight of the Temple Mount, why do we still break the glass?" Sharansky answered his own question as he addressed the young couple: "Your task, Micha and Rachel, is more difficult than ours was; we had to get to Jerusalem, but you have to protect and preserve it. You have to protect and preserve the indelible connection between Jerusalem below and Jerusalem above. You have to protect and preserve the prophetic dream of Jerusalem, the City of World Peace…" I would submit that Sharansky's charge goes one step further. The Bible opens with "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," just as the Book of Exodus opens with God's five promises of redemption. And the Bible ends, its very last words in the Second Book of Chronicles (36:23): "Thus said Cyrus, King of Persia. The Lord, God of Heaven… has commanded me to build Him a Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of His entire people, may the Lord his God be with him, and may he go up." God created an incomplete, imperfect world and promised redemption; we who are created in His image must complete and perfect His world, build His Temple, and realize redemption. Elijah the human prophet must pave the way for King Messiah, and during the Seder we must open the door to let Elijah - and our redeeming God - in. In the Grace after the Meal we thank God for the bread - but we had to first develop the agricultural processes and then labor mightily to produce that bread. "They [the people] must build for Me a Temple so that I may dwell in their midst." The cup of Elijah reminds us of our crucial role in the path to Redemption. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.