Celebrating salvation…or servitude?
By: Dovid Samuels
One of the mitzvos that we are commanded to fulfil on the Seder night is to drink four cups of wine. Even the poorest among us, who rely on charity for their food, should be given enough to buy no less than four cups, for the mitzvah. Many reasons are given by our Sages as to why we need specifically four cups. One reason, and perhaps the most well-known, is that there were four terms referring to our rescue from Egypt: hotzaysi (took me out), hatzalti (saved me), ga’alti (redeemed me), and lakachti (took me). That’s one cup for each word.
Another more perplexing answer given is that the cups refer to the four times Pharaoh’s cup is mentioned in the dream his cupbearer had after being imprisoned. This certainly requires an explanation. Yet another reason: they correspond to the four kingdoms which will rule over the Jewish people in the course of their history, namely: Babylon, Mede, Greece, and Rome. This answer, even more than the previous answer, is bewildering. Up until now, I’m sure we all thought that we were raising our cups at the Seder to celebrate our freedom from foreign rule and oppression, but this answer seems to imply that we are drinking cups of wine which represent anything but liberty and salvation. Instead, we are toasting to our on-going struggle and oppression. That can’t be what the Seder night is all about!
In explaining the relationship between the Egyptian exile and the four subsequent exiles, we need to understand an important point. The Sfas Emes asks: when Avraham Avinu was being shown the future suffering of the Jewish people at the covenant of the parts, why did Hashem only show him the suffering in Mitzrayim – Egypt, and not the suffering under the four subsequent regimes? Using a principle taught by many other commentators, he explains that when Avraham was told about the exile – galus – in Mitzrayim, he was told we were supposed to be there for 400 years. In the end, we were only there for 210 years. The reason for this is that we were rapidly dropping down the ladder of impurity, and if we had remained there any longer we would have sunken into the last level, beyond redemption. In truth, had we been strong enough to stay there for the full 400 years, we would have totally cleansed ourselves as a nation, we would have never sinned at the golden calf, and we would have entered Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) in perfection, with no subsequent exiles. Since we couldn’t last any longer, Hashem, as a kindness, pulled us out early, but that meant that we didn’t reach our full perfection in Egypt and that we would still need to go into galus in the future, to complete the shortfall in our 400-year sentence. This means that Hashem, when mentioning the 400 year exile to Avraham, was also hinting to the subsequent exiles.
With this in mind, intertwined with us celebrating our freedom from Mitzrayim, we are also very much cognisant of the necessity of subsequent exiles, which we are still suffering under to this day. So, it makes sense that the cup of salvation we drink for our redemption from Egypt goes hand-in-hand with our enslavement under the four other exiles, as they were all born out of that very first galus. This, in fact, is a reason why we refer to the story at the Seder as the Hagaddah. Our Sages teach us that the word higid – to tell – refers to the communicating of hard topics, hinting to the toughness of gid – sinew. Thus the Hagaddah has an element of hardness to it, that on the one hand we rejoice at our freedom, but, on the other hand, we also acknowledge the bitter truth that it wasn’t a final redemption. Hence we pray at the end: next year in Yerushalayim! But it seems a bit inappropriate that the way we celebrate our freedom from Egypt – by drinking a cup of wine – should be the same way we alert ourselves to the sad reality of still having an outstanding debt of servitude to the other kingdoms in the future.
The truth is that we actually need to be thankful for this outstanding debt. As we now know, if we had remained in Egypt for even a second longer, we would have been lost beyond redemption. The only thing standing for us that would allow for a premature redemption was the fact that we would pay back those remaining years over the course of the rest of Jewish history under the four kingdoms. Were it not for the subsequent exiles, we would have had to do our full sentence of 400 years in Mitzrayim, and we would have never been able to leave. This is why we drink the four cups of salvation; not celebrating the freedom from these nations, but instead celebrating the mere fact that being enslaved by these nations provided us the ability to celebrate the ge’ula – redemption – from Egypt. Without them, we would not be able to raise even one cup of salvation.
So, our experiences in galus are very much related to the exile of Mitzrayim. We are not simply making up for the 190 years that we avoided in Egypt, as history shows we have had far more than that! Rather, Mitzrayim was a place of absolute evil, and it was our job to solidify ourselves against the backdrop of such immorality, to forge ourselves as the nation of G-d. With the job left unfinished, our bitter experiences in the subsequent exiles serve as the arena where we will be tried and tested in order to finish off the forging process, to reach absolute perfection with the final redemption.
With this new understanding regarding our on-going subjugations at the hands of the four kingdoms – Babylon, Mede, Greece, and Rome – that they served as our olive branch to get out of Egypt early and allow us to fully achieve the perfection we were supposed to attain there, perhaps we can understand the second reason mentioned for the four cups of wine. Pharaoh’s cupbearer had a strange dream, and a lot of information was not necessary for the basic interpretation. Chazal teach us that a lot of the information in his dream hints to the redemption of the Jewish people. He dreamt of a ‘vine’, which refers to the Jews, and ‘three branches’, which refer to Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. The vine was ‘budding’, which is the budding of redemption, and its ‘blossoms shot forth’, also alluding to the shooting forth of our redemption. The Alshich explains that this was in fact the real purpose of the dream; to give Yosef information about the future exile and redemption of the Jews, and only incidentally did it contain information that was pertinent to the cupbearer himself.
Now, if we take a look at Yosef’s experiences up until that point, it is truly a desperate tale. He was sold by his brothers to a corrupt people in an immoral land. He found himself in his own galus. But he was sold to a prominent figure, Potifar, finding favour in this powerful household. But, he was then incriminated by Potifar’s wife and thrown into jail. A terrible series of events. But, if we look at the end of the story, it was only because he was thrown in jail that we was able to interpret the cupbearer’s dream. And, after that, Pharaoh found out about his talents and had him interpret his dreams. That, ultimately, led him to become a close confidant of Pharaoh, and the second-in-command of the most powerful nation in the world. Here we see the mastery and intricacy of Hashem’s providence in this world and His personal interest in His nation.
But, we also learn an important lesson of how to view “bad” events, and more specifically, galus. While Yosef was experiencing his bitter exile, it was from that very experience that the ge’ula blossomed and shot forth. His rise to power paved the way for the Jews’ life in Egypt, and their ability to withstand 210 years of unbearable subjugation. Egypt was our preparation for perfection, but we didn’t yet achieve it fully. And so we find ourselves in yet another bitter exile, the harshest of them all. It is this very exile, however, that allowed us to survive and escape Egypt, before our sentence was up, before we were swallowed up by pure evil. Just as Yosef’s darkest hour, caged in the prison, was the preparation of a great salvation for the Jewish people, so too in our darkest hour, in lands not our own, against influences and oppression which are at times almost too much for us as a nation to bear, the way is being paved for our true and final redemption.
So we raise our cups, four cups to be exact, and celebrate our freedom from Egypt and our chance to finish the job that we were unable to finish there. We celebrate our redemption, but also the darkness that precedes that redemption. We rejoice in the fact that, even as things are hard for us as individuals, and excruciating as a nation, every moment we are getting closer and closer to the final ge’ula, and that, just as Yosef at his lowest point was given a vision of the Jews’ escape from evil, so too, we have this message at Pesach that our personal and collective suffering is paving the way to an epic finale.