The rule of four

I have always felt that the number four in Pessah lore derives its significance from the four mothers.

woman drinking wine 88 (photo credit: )
woman drinking wine 88
(photo credit: )
We are all aware that four is a significant number as far as Pessah is concerned. There are the four words of redemption, the four sons, the four questions, the four cups of wine and the four matriarchs of Israel. In Judaism there are some numbers, such as seven, that appear more significant than do other numbers. As far as Pessah is concerned, it seems that four is the winning number in terms of significance. I have always felt that the number four in Pessah lore derives its significance from the four mothers, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. Each of these women exhibited a different character and a greatness all her own. Although each is aligned with her husband, there is a definite strength in each one that stands apart from her role as wife and mother. And to a certain extent each represents one of the four stages of redemption as expressed in the four different words of the Torah as they appear relevant to the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The redemption of the Jews in Egypt occurs in stages. First there is the relaxation of the terrible decree of infanticide followed by the non-enforcement of bricks without straw. The Jewish people are still slaves, but their physical conditions of oppression have been lightened and relaxed. This improvement parallels Sarah's role in history. She and her husband are alone in the world, subject to persecution and constant dangers. She escapes from the palaces of Pharaoh and Abimelech miraculously unharmed physically but certainly bruised emotionally. She has great difficulties in her life and dies from the shock of her son, also miraculously granted to her, being offered upon the altar as a sacrifice. She is never free of traumas all of her life. The second stage of redemption in Egypt lies in the realization among the Egyptians themselves that they will have no choice but to free the Jews from slavery. They say to Pharaoh: "Do you not realize that Egypt is lost? Send these people out already!" The time of Rebekah is one of recognition by the world of the message of Isaac and Rebekah. Abimelech journeys to make treaties with Isaac and begrudgingly accepts the fact that he and his family are beneficial to the Philistine country. However Rebekah also is abducted into his palace where she also is miraculously saved from the king. Just as Pharaoh will not give in to the advice of his courtiers and free Israel from bondage, so too Abimelech, in spite of his peaceful protestations, is not yet willing for Isaac and Rebekah to live in peace and security in his country. Abimelech is not yet prepared to let go though overtly he does not pursue any hostile actions any longer against Isaac and Rebekah. Pharaoh also is not yet prepared to let go though logic certainly dictates otherwise. He has not yet given up on the idea of slavery for the Jews in Egypt. The third stage of redemption in Egypt is when the Jews are freed from any labor by the Egyptians. They are not free to leave the country but they no longer have any taskmasters over them. Leah represents this tension of being somewhat in limbo. The mother of six tribes of Israel, especially that of the priestly tribe and the royal house of Israel, she nevertheless is not considered the favorite wife though in death she alone will be joined to Jacob in the Cave of Machpela. She is and she isn't quite the heroine of the story, the mainstay of the house, the matriarch supreme. The final piece, the fourth stage of the redemption is the exodus from Egypt itself. It is the self-confidence of being able to be free and feel free after so many centuries of exile and bondage. There is heartbreak involved nevertheless, since not all of the Jews will leave Egypt and a substantial number of them will die there. Rachel is the symbol of leaving exile, of escaping from Laban and Esau, of giving birth to Joseph who will save his family from death in the great famine and rise to great heights as the viceroy of Egypt, and the matriarch who stands guard on the road as her children Israel depart for exile and who welcomes them back home upon their eventual return. The four matriarchs predict the four stages of redemption of their descendants. We who are privileged to live in Israel have felt mother Rachel's welcome first hand. May we also merit the final stage of our redemption as well. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.