Parshat Va’era: Five expressions of redemption

As there are five expressions of redemption, why are we only mandated to drink four and not five cups of wine at the Passover Seder?

Red Wine in glass 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Red Wine in glass 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
‘I will bring you to the land regarding which I raised My hand (swearing) that I would give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I will give it to you as a heritage. I am God’ (Exodus 6:8)
Since my aliya 30 years ago, I am filled with shame and a little trepidation on the Sabbath of Va’era. As we read the four expressions of redemption – the source of our four cups of wine at the Passover Seder, I can hear the Almighty saying from His Place on High: “My beloved children, where is your gratitude? Do you not yet realize that I have returned you to your ancestral homeland?”
You see, there are not four, but five verbal expressions of redemption in our portion of Va’era: “I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I shall save you from their slave labor, I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm… I shall take you to Myself as a nation… and I shall bring you to the land…” (Exodus 6:6-8). And as there are five expressions of redemption, why are we only mandated to drink four and not five cups of wine? The reason is that within a few weeks of our exodus from Egypt, the first four expressions of redemption were effectuated. However, the realization of the fifth expression, our entry into the Land of Israel, only began to take place 40 years later under the leadership of Joshua.
Moreover, the compilation of our Passover Haggada took place after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the Jewish people required a book of ordered prayers to give meaningful content to the Passover Seder, the pale substitute for the dramatic Paschal lamb celebration of myriads of family groups uniting in pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Following the destruction of the Temple, the majority of Jews lived in the Diaspora, so it would have been difficult after the tragic end of our national sovereignty to ordain a fifth cup in gratitude for God’s gift of our ancestral homeland.
Nevertheless, foremost early authorities like Rabbenu Nissim maintained that while four cups were obligatory, a fifth cup was voluntary. It was an extra stringency for those whose faith in God’s promise to restore our national sovereignty was firm and unwavering. Maimonides legislates that after drinking the fourth cup of wine of hallel praise for our eventual national restoration, “It is then proper [for the Seder leader] to pour a fifth cup and to say over it the Great Hallel (Psalms 136-137)” – our prayer for world redemption (Mishne Torah, Laws of Hametz and Matza 8:10).
Rav Menahem Kasher explains that originally there were two different haggadot, one which was read in the Land of Israel and the other in the Diaspora. The Haggada used in all communities today is the Diaspora version, as is clear from its prologue, “This year we are here, next year may we be in the Land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year, may we be free people.” Hence our Diaspora Haggada composed after we lost our national sovereignty lacks the fifth cup of thanksgiving for God’s having brought us to Israel. However, the Eretz Yisrael version of the Haggada which included the fifth cup was still used by Jews in Israel for a short period after the destruction.
Now that we are privileged to experience Israel reborn, would it not be fitting – and even mandatory – for us to take five cups of wine, thereby showing gratitude to the Almighty for keeping His promise and confirming His Covenant? Certainly, for those living in Israel, it behooves us to drink the fifth cup celebrating God’s promise to Abraham 4,000 years ago: “I shall make you a great nation . . . and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Postscript During the last 30 years, billions of dollars have been spent on memorials to the sacred six million murdered by the Nazis. I certainly understand the great need of those who lost loved ones to erect such memorials, especially when they don’t even have a gravestone to weep over. Nevertheless, I respectfully question the ability of such museums to strengthen Jewish identity or express a meaningful Jewish theology. Yes, we must never forgive and we must never forget, and yes, we must certainly remember the innocent souls whose lives were cut short – but no young, proud Jew wishes to identify as a victim!
Look to the biblical celebrations of Passover and my position will become clear. We experienced 210 years of holocaust in Egypt, 210 years of Auschwitz-like enslavement with genocidal murder of male Jewish babies – and we certainly mention and mourn these atrocities during the Passover Seder. But the Seder is defined by and dedicated to our exodus from Egypt, our emergence from enslavement, and our triumph over Pharaoh. We do not leave the Passover Seder as victims, but rather as victors.
Hence every Holocaust memorial must conclude with the story of Israel reborn three years after Hitler’s ignominious suicide in his Berlin bunker. And we must conclude our Passover Seder with a fifth cup of joy celebrating our miraculous return to our homeland.
“In every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us, but the Holy One blessed be He always saves us from their hands.”The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.