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Wednesday, April 18, 2012


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.

1 comment:

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