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Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Dvar Torah For Shmini Shel Pesach, Shir Ha-Shirim, and Yizkor, 5772.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach.

As some of you know, throughout the week of Pesach, I have been exploring the meaning of the drinking of the four cups of wine that structure the seder ritual and enhance our celebration of our freedom. We have studied the verses from the book of Exodus in which God employs at least four different verbs to describe God’s promise of liberation to the people of Israel. These four verbs are seen by the Talmud as the literary basis for the four cups of wine at the seder.

The last verb in the Bible’s list is v’lakachti, which means literally, “I (God) will take you Israelites to be my people.” Most commentators on the Torah explain that God’s promise to take us to be God’s people was fulfilled at Mount Sinai, when God gave us the Torah, thus signifying that we were not only physically free from slavery, we were spiritually free as well. This verb, v’lakachti, is used in other parts of the Torah as well as later Talmudic literature as a reference to a man taking a woman and making her his wife. Though this technical term for marriage and the imagery accompanying it may disturb us because it is sexist, it provides us with a rich portrayal of how Jewish tradition has always understood the Exodus from Egypt and our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai: God removes us from slavery to Pharaoh and marries us, with the Torah serving as our ketubah, or marriage contract, on our wedding day when we truly become a people married to God. It is no wonder, then, that we chant Shir Ha-Shirim during Pesach. Its erotic love poetry about a man and woman desiring each other became a preeminent symbol of the romance between God and the Jews that resulted in God taking us to be God’s bride.

One of the most evocative images in Shir Ha-Shirim is of the woman lying on her bed at night, unable to sleep because she is tormented by thoughts of her lover from whom she is separated. We read in chapter 3:1:
Upon my couch at night//I sought the one I love//I sought but found him not.
The sages of the Talmud interpreted this verse to be a lament of the Jewish people before God. There are physical and spiritual nighttimes when we are either oppressed by others or when we drift away from the Torah. At those times, we lie not on a lover’s couch but upon a sick bed, tormented by our alienation from God. Only through our efforts and God’s love is the rift between us repaired so that we can continue to live as individuals and as a people.

The image of the couch in Shir Ha-Shirim is invoked to describe a physical romance between two people, and a spiritual romance between the Jewish people and God. As we will see during Yizkor, the image of the couch is also invoked in the beautiful memorial prayer, Eil Malei Rakhamim. There, we not only call forth memories of our loved ones before God, we call upon God to protect their souls by having them lie upon their couches in peace, in the afterlife: v’yanukhu b’shalom al mish-k’voteihem. What strikes me about this image in the memorial prayer is its firm assertion that those we love and remember who have died, are not really deceased, but alive with God in a place of rest and peace upon heavenly couches that are attended to by God. This is not only a theological image, and it is not necessarily trying to make some forced assumption about immortality and the soul. It is a poetic image that binds us, our loved ones who have died, and God together in the hope that our love, their love, and God’s love keeps them alive in spirit, even when their bodies are no longer alive. We hope for our loved ones that the couch – one metaphor for life experience- that may have been a place of turbulence and torment during their lives- is now the setting for peace and rest for their undying spiritual selves that we remember with sadness, but also with love.


Dvar Torah For Shvii Shel Pesach (Pesach, Day Seven), 5772.

Chag sameach.

During the first two days of Pesach, I explained that in each dvar Torah for the holiday I would discuss the four cups of wine at the seder, with a close look at their form, function, symbolism and where tradition derives them from. You may recall our having looked at Exodus, chapter 6:6-7, which contains four different verbs that refer to God’s promised liberation of the Israelites from slavery. The derivation of the four cups of wine from these four verbs is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pesahim, 10:1. There, we learn about three other sources in the Bible that hint at our practice of the four cups. These include the mention of four cups of bitterness that will be drunk by the Jewish people when we are under the thumb of different rulers and the four cups of salvation that we will drink when God redeems us from oppression in the messianic era. Each of these references to four cups that are drunk by the Jewish people actually makes sense as a poetic basis for explaining the source of our seder ritual. According to the Mishnah, the oral Torah, we begin telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt bi-g’nut, in a state of degradation, and we finish telling the story bi-sh’vach, in a state of praise: we were once slaves, then we became free; we once were slaves to idolatry, then God made us God’s people. This Passover story is a paradigm for and a microcosm of the Jewish experience throughout history: we have drunk many cups of oppression and we continue to drink many cups of deliverance. We will finish doing this when we and the world are finally redeemed by God during the ultimate messianic redemption.

However, one more creative allusion to the four cups of seder wine is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, and at first glance it makes no sense at all in this context. If you open your Humashim to Genesis 40:9-11 on page 243, we will read a passage from the story about our ancestor Joseph’s encounter with the royal cup-bearer in prison:

Then the chief cup bearer told his dream to Joseph. He said to him, “In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.

Notice that in telling his dream to Joseph, the cup bearer uses the word “cup” three times. Joseph, of course interprets his prison mate’s dream correctly. In three days’ time, Pharaoh celebrates his birthday by pardoning his cup bearer and restoring him to his former position. In fact, we read later on, in chapter 40:21, page 245:

Pharaoh restored the chief cup bearer to his cup bearing, and he placed the cup in Pharoah’s hand.

These four mentions of the word “cup” in our story are taken by the Jerusalem Talmud as a hint to the four cups of wine that we drink at the seder.

All of the Talmud’s explanations for the source of our seder drinking ritual are essentially asmakhtot, after-the-fact rationales based upon the Bible, in this case for what was likely already a very ancient Jewish seder practice. However, as I already mentioned, this one asmakhta about Pharaoh’s cup bearer seems to make the least sense of all of them. How can the four cups of the cup bearer’s story be connected at all to the four cups of wine at our seder? The cup bearer was a non-Jew who had the good fortune to meet Joseph at the right time in his life and to be pardoned by Pharaoh, likely on a capricious whim of the latter, so that his life was saved and he was able to go back to serving in the royal court. This is hardly the basis for the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Other rabbinic sources explain that the cup bearer’s whole account is actually a veiled reference to the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt, with the cups of wine and the grape vine serving as symbols for the means by which God would vanquish Pharaoh and save us from his clutches.

Obviously, there is no arguing with this kind of poetic license, because that is what an asmakhta is: a poetic marshalling of biblical sources in a playful way to make a point after the fact and “prove” as it were that some tradition or innovation actually has its roots in an authoritative biblical text. This being the case, allow me to offer an asmakhta explanation of my own based upon the verses about the cup bearer’s dream from Genesis. I make no claims that our sages would have agreed with me about my interpretation, but as we say in the rabbinic world: ein m’shivin al ha-drash: creative interpretations on the stories and ideas of biblical narrative should abound without anyone critiquing the creativity of anyone else. I suggest that these verses we quoted from Genesis should actually be taken in their most universal sense. Joseph the Hebrew is about to interpret the dream of redemption of his non-Jewish prison mate who just wants to be rehabilitated by his boss, Pharoah. The cup bearer wants to get out of prison, to receive the king’s favor, and to get back to his old job that must have supported him pretty well. In the end, as Joseph predicts, this is what happens. Yet, implicit in this story of the cup bearer’s good fortune is a darker story about the caprices of a powerful king who can raise a man like the cup bearer out of prison or behead a man like the royal baker, the other character in the Genesis story who did not fare as well. The fortunes of these two men, like that of Joseph, were utterly dependent upon other all-powerful elites who, no matter how benign they appeared, could turn on an underling and make or break a man’s life as part of a trifling bit of entertainment for a birthday celebration. Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud connected the four cups of wine of the seder to this story to teach a more ominous, universal lesson about slavery and redemption. Unchecked by a power greater than oneself, whether the fear of God or the rule of law, the best leader easily degenerates into a tyrant whose decisions about the fate of others are vindictive and destructive. In the shadow of absolute power, even those who could be considered politically and economically fortunate, really have little real control over their own lives; how much more so the members of society with no money, prestige, or connections. sitting at their seder tables under the thumb of Roman occupation, our sages may have wanted to connect the night of redemption from Egypt to this disturbing story about the cup bearer because it is a story about incomplete liberation and freedom. They may have wanted to remind us that human authority and power should never be left unchecked and that the Pesach celebration is not only about our successful liberation from Egypt, but also about the many Egypts that remain throughout the world for millions, not just Jews.

Last week, I prefaced my first dvar Torah with an informal discussion about modern-day slavery. Millions of people who are desperate for economic security wind up being illegally trafficked or abducted and forced into slave-like conditions as prostitutes, farm workers for cacao farmers who supply some of the world’s biggest chocolatiers, and many other circumstances of forced labor. An estimated 15-27 million people throughout the world are modern-day slaves, many of them are minors, and many of them are women living under the coercive authority of abusive men. Further, modern day slaves are even living here in the United States and in Israel, two of the freest places on earth. They are far worse off than the cup bearer in the Bible story quoted by the Jerusalem Talmud, but they share with him one common condition: they have no real power to chart their own destinies and they are robbed of their dignity. If you go to Brandeis University’s website,, link to its Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism, and you will find more resources than you can stand to read about modern day human trafficking and slavery. To learn more about women, poverty, and modern slavery and trafficking, look at Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu-Dunn’s excellent book, Half the Sky.

The four cups of wine at our seders are certainly intended to celebrate the redemption and liberation that we experienced in Egypt, as well as the redemption that we experience through our reliance upon God. Yet, they can also be seen as uncomfortable reminders to us free people of the liberation and redemption that remain to be achieved by so many throughout the world. God needs us to make this freedom a reality.

Chag sameach.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Dvar Torah For Day Two Of Pesach, 5772.
Chag kasher v’sameach.

Yesterday, we began to look at the ritual of the four cups of wine at the seder, specifically how the four cups function as markers along the path toward physical and spiritual freedom that we take each time we celebrate Pesach. You may recall the Talmudic teaching about the hint of these four cups of wine that our sages found in the language of the Torah. You will notice the verses from the book of Exodus, 6:6-7 that we studied yesterday morning:

I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. And I will take you to be My people…

As we will see next week during Yom Tov, and as I alluded to yesterday, this four-verb hint used by the Talmud for rationalizing the practice of the four cups is not the only one that is taught. However, it is the one that is most popular and that is cited most often in traditional sources. For me, the big question about these arbaah leshonot geulah, these four mentions of redemption, is that they appear to be saying the exact same thing four times. Is there anything about each of these verbs, to free, to deliver, to redeem and to take that makes them distinctive? Are God and the Torah simply being verbose?

Let me suggest that we follow the sage advice of our sages: no word in the Torah is superfluous or mere verbal ornamentation. It all possesses significance, even the parts that speak colloquially, in the language of human beings, as our rabbis call it. The fun and meaning of Torah text are found precisely in the significance –manifest and hidden - of each word, even at times, each letter of Torah. That being the case, let’s learn more about these four mentions of redemption with one of the masters of Torah commentary, Rabbi Hayyim ben Attar, also known as the Or HaHayyim, after his commentary by the same name. Rabbi ben Attar lived in 17th century Morocco in what was then still a thriving Jewish community. His commentary is noted for very fine, subtle questions about the Torah as well as a great deal of application of Jewish mysticism to interpreting the text. Rabbi ben Attar wrote the following about the four mentions of redemption in Exodus that form the basis for the four cups of wine:

God told Moses, “Inform the people of Israel that My nature is one of mercy. I will be merciful toward them, and here is the list of good things I will do for them:

I will free them: this means that I will free them from the worst of the Egyptian oppression through the ten plagues, but the dread of Egyptian power will still be over them. Then…

I will deliver them: this means that I will free them finally from all oppression and forced labor prior to the Exodus. Then…

I will redeem them: this means that I will actually take them out of Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds, beyond the reach of persecution and enemies. Then…
I will take them to be My people: this means that at Mount Sinai I will give them the Torah, when they become singled out for relationship with Me.

Note what the Or HaHayyim appears to be doing. Each one of the verbs represents a different stage of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. By itself, this idea is nothing new. The innovation that Rabbi ben Attar adds here is this: the process of liberation and redemption was taking place well before the event of liberation and redemption, when our ancestors finally went free during the Exodus. Whether you believe that God literally did the work of freeing us, or that the Exodus was a purely human endeavor, the Or HaHayyim reminds us that the transition from slavery to freedom doesn’t just happen all of a sudden, out of the blue. That is because human beings get so tangled in the dark chaos of oppression, both as oppressors and as the oppressed, that even God, as it were, has to move with relative slowness to disentangle us from the mess of persecution. Even God cannot redeem us when we ourselves are not fully ready to be redeemed or to take responsibility for our own redemption. In a more secular vein, people who have been oppressed generally need to take the time to develop political consciousness and conscience that allow them to see that they do not have to allow themselves to be abused by the power of others. Even when the overturning of oppressive power can and should be swift, - when political revolution is the better path than political evolution - the creation of new, more equal expressions of power and governance likely needs to move with thoughtful deliberateness; thus, no one is able to grab the reins of new power too quickly or self-righteously, which prevents newly freed people from meeting the new boss who just winds up being the same as the old boss.

For me, the most interesting ritual implication of Rabbi ben Attar’s explanation of the redemptive process is how it is reflected in the seder. We recline and drink the four cups of wine at the seder, like free people. Yet, as we drink each of those cups, we like our ancestors, are reenacting the experience of still being slaves as much as the drama of becoming free. We are in Egypt slowly shaking off oppression but not yet fully free, just like they were. This liminal experience of being both enslaved and free, of being on the threshold between both, is found throughout the seder: matzah is the bread of the Exodus and freedom, and it is the bread of affliction; we begin the telling of the Pesach story at the seder bi-g’nut, in a state of degradation, and only later do we journey to the end of the story bi-sh’vach, praising God for the dignity of freedom; we consume symbols of the Paschal sacrifice and bitter herbs and haroset, symbols of the bitterness of slavery. Each of these threshold rituals forces us to feel the discomfort of not being quite a slave yet not being quite free, even as we party through the seder night in celebration. That way, we never take freedom for granted, we never dismiss the possibility of slavery as merely a thing of the distant past, and we never lose our sense of humble gratitude to God for the blessings we have.


Dvar Torah For Day 1 of Pesach, 5772.

Shabbat shalom and chag kasher v’sameach.

I trust that your first seder was a joyous experience that not only involved a great feast with family and friends, but also an opportunity to literally taste slavery and freedom in one meal. One of the primary ritual and educational tools of the seder is the drinking of the four cups of wine. For this and the next three divrei Torah that span the four days of Yom Tov during Pesach, I want to explore this ritual of the four cups from different perspectives, ritual, halakhic, and symbolic. This is especially helpful today, the first day of Yom Tov, as we reflect upon our first seder and prepare for the second which will take place tonight.

The practice of drinking four cups of wine at the seder derives from the Mishnah, the oral Torah, specifically Tractate Pesahim, chapter 10. There, we read in the very first section that even the poorest members of the Jewish community must drink four cups of wine at the seder, and even if that requires taking assistance from the public charity fund that would be used only for those in the most dire financial straits. The rest of chapter 10 teaches us about the four times that each cup of wine is drunk: as part of Kiddush for Yom Tov evening, at the end of the recitation of the Passover story, right after Birkat HaMazon, or grace after meals, and at the conclusion of the Hallel prayer which is mandated by the rabbis of the Mishnah as a way of praising God for delivering us from Egypt. Each of these rituals to which wine drinking is connected is an obligatory practice that sanctifies our celebratory meal as a religious event.

The Mishnah never actually explains to us where it derives the drinking of the four cups from, only that each of the four major rituals of the seder is to be accompanied by the drinking of a cup of wine, over each of which the later rabbis of the Talmud required a blessing. Other rabbinic sources assert that this practice is based upon the four different verbs used to describe God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, which are mentioned in Exodus 6:6-7. There God explains to Moses God’s plan for freeing the people from Egypt:

I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. And I will take you to be My people…

God promises to free us, to deliver us, to redeem us, and to take us as God’s people. At first glance, this four-word emphasis upon liberation in the Bible is a sufficient explanation for the four cups of wine. Each celebratory cup that we drink serves as a reminder of God’s promises fulfilled in the past and of God’s promises to be fulfilled toward us in the future. However, as we will see later on during Pesach, other plausible four-fold explanations for the four cups exist, and the verses that I quoted before from Exodus can easily be interpreted to evoke five or even six words related to liberation, when the verse are quoted in full. Though these four words that evoke images of God liberating us are powerful, let me suggest a more basic reason for why we drink these four cups at the seder, as well as why we drink them when and how we do.

The seder is, as its name attests, literally an ordered ritual experience; it is intended to help us feel like we are slaves leaving Egypt, not simply have us retell the Exodus story as someone else’s story from an inaccessible and distant past. Everything about the seder is conducted with an eye toward helping us to act and feast like newly -freed people. In the Greco-Roman world of ancient Palestine where the seder liturgy was developed, it was common for the upper classes to hold symposia, in which they mixed heavy amounts of eating, drinking, and not always wholesome partying with light intellectual discussions about philosophy, science or the arts. A common misconception is that the seder was modeled directly after the symposium. Though the form of the Roman symposium was likely the skeletal model for the structure of the seder, the content of the seder was anything but an imitation of the symposium. My teacher Professor Barukh Bokser, of blessed memory, wrote many years ago that the Mishnah I mentioned above reflects our sages’ efforts to create a distinctively Jewish spiritual experience through the seder. Their true model was the first Passover meal that the Israelites engaged in as slaves on the verge of freedom that night before the Exodus millennia ago. Of course, their second true model was the great Passover offering celebrated in Jerusalem by thousands of pilgrims who would worship at the Bet Hamikdash, the holy Temple, as one free community, prior to the Temple’s destruction by the Romans. Rabbi Bokser and other scholars point out where our sages chose to pointedly make changes in the symposium model or to ignore it altogether. First, they insured that everyone, men, women and children, rich and poor alike would be part of the seder experience, particularly the drinking of the four cups of wine and reclining in the manner of free people. The seder became a rehearsal for radical egalitarianism, something to be tasted by all members of the community within the larger values framework of redemption, even if only for one night. Egalitarianism and inclusiveness were hardly the fare of the typical symposium. Second, while they certainly expected seder participants to feast and drink as free people do, they placed the discussion of the Exodus first in the order of the evening, before the revelry and the drinking, which were considered of secondary importance in some respects. In fact, the revelry and drinking were highly regulated by the Mishnah, so that the seder did not degenerate into the bacchanalian nonsense for which Roman symposia were apparently infamous. Third, and I think most relevant, the four cups of wine were placed by the sages in the seder as ritual markers of transitions, rather than simply opportunities for a good, stiff drink. Look at where each of the four cups of wine is found. The first cup ushers in the holiday through Kiddush, which proclaims Pesach and the people of Israel holy, something that is hard to do when a people is being beaten down by an oppressor. The second cup concludes the mitzvah of telling and re-living the story of the redemption from Egypt, which is what defines us on the night of liberation. More specifically, after the telling of the story we now define ourselves as free, rather than having our identities handed to us by Pharaoh, thus leading us to a celebratory drink. The third cup follows the grace after meals, in fulfillment of the traditional requirement according to Halakhah, something not often done anymore. Significantly, this third cup of wine seems to be one more reminder to us free people that our freedom is not license for anarchy in eating, drinking and partying, but a reminder that we have the capacity to discipline our behavior voluntarily and freely. Finally, the fourth cup completes the recitation of the second part of the Hallel prayer, which our sages required us to chant as a final hymn of thanks to God, who is the real center of the Exodus story. We who are physically free can once again exercise our spiritual freedom by recognizing God, not a human being, as the supreme ruler, yet another reason for a celebratory drink within appropriate limits. Each of these transitions or stations follows a larger pattern that the four cups of wine and the text of the Haggadah reflect: first, we needed to be physically liberated from Pharaoh. Only then could we liberate ourselves spiritually and morally by exercising freely our relationship with God and a life of self-imposed discipline, the ultimate form of freedom.

Thus, far from being opportunities for making the seder a happy hour, the four cups of wine concretize and ritualize order and structure, while at the same time allowing us a certain amount of space to unwind, have fun, and celebrate the literal and symbolic taste of freedom. Ultimately, they parallel beautifully the four verbs from Exodus that are their literary basis: At Kiddush, we thank God for literally freeing us from Egypt. During the telling of the story, we praise God for literally delivering us from Egypt. After Birkat Hamazon, we recognize that God gives us the tools for spiritual redemption. After Hallel, we revel in the One who takes us to be that One’s own, which is the deeper purpose of the Exodus—to freely accept a life of mission and partnership with God in repairing the world.