Search This Blog

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment