Va’eira — 5771 — Thinking While Drinking

03/01/2011 at 14:14 Leave a comment

“Thinking While Drinking”

Parashat Va’eira

1 January 2011

Neil F. Blumofe



The time of our redemption is at hand.  Here, we find God active and engaged in the plight of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, setting in motion redemption from its depths — present and in the world by moving the people from slavery towards freedom.  This redemption is not a sudden sunburst of overwhelming energy – rather, it is a measured almost inscrutable process that our sages have recognized as occurring in four stages, based on the verbs in the beginning of this week’s portion.


In rapid succession, four expressions of redemption are mentioned – (i) v’hotsaiti; (ii) v’hitsalti; (iii) v’ga’alti; (iv) v’lakachti – (i) I will take you out; (ii) I will rescue you; (iii) I will redeem you; and (iv) I will take you.  These words are revealed to Moshe and serve as the basis for the four cups of wine in our Pesach seder.  Our tradition, over many generations, has woven these words together to represent a confident and uplifting message of believing in the ultimate determining hand of God to redeem us from our places – a message that is relevant in every generation – v’hi she’amda la’avoteinu v’lanu – this is the promise that has sustained our ancestors and us — reminding us again that when speaking of God, there is no history – only the expansive present – no past, no future, only the unfolding of this moment.  This is the power of time made sacred.


Many of us know the practice of the four cups – do we too, have a fifth cup on our seder tables, as well?  This custom is linked to an addition word, v’hei’veiti – I will bring, coming in the next verse (Exodus 6:8) which is also a part of God’s address to Moshe, here.  As the Vilna Gaon teaches – there is a dispute among the early commentators on the Talmud called the rishonim, about whether or not we should drink this fifth cup at the seder, based on a variant reading in the Talmud.  According to some of the sages, the Talmud states that over the fifth cup one sings Hallel in the seder and according to others, their version reads, over the fourth cup one sings Hallel. Therefore, this is why the custom came about to pour the fifth cup of wine, yet not to drink it – and the connection grew, linking this cup to Elijah the prophet.


Many of us grew up opening the door for Elijah to come to our seder, as a precursor to a more perfect or even, Messianic Age.  Elijah was the herald of Moshiach – that our freedom is not involved only in this world – the resonances of our seder penetrate other worlds as well.  It is striking that as we read the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the fourth and fifth cups of wine – he roots the arrival of Elijah to a more modest function – Elijah will come to our seders, not to get us ready for the fulfillment of the promised redemption in any way other than to answer the questions that we have about how to make our seders, and he will resolve any lingering questions or doubts that are reflected in our tradition.  It is Elijah who will take up these reserved questions – our tradition assigning our most exalted traveler between worlds these urgent questions that have no clear cut conclusion.


Elijah’s is a voice from the beyond that will clear up our persistent queries, and through these insights, final redemption will come.  If you think about this method of delivery, it is an extraordinary and rather radical means towards freedom.  Judaism pushes us and encourages us to ask questions – hard, piercing, unrelenting questions, that range from the metaphysical to the prosaic – and what will mark our freedom and even the messianic age, quite simply, are the answers.


With this in mind, let’s go a bit further.  It is interesting to read the fifth cup as many do – which is a promise of Israel.  The fact that the state of Israel is established and that all have the opportunity to live in it warrant the inclusion and the drinking of this fifth cup.  Not so fast, some others say – unlike the four cups which were activated by the giving of the Torah and were given unconditionally, this fifth one has a quid pro quo attached to it – the state of Israel is not to be like any other state – rather, it is revealed only after by the verb which precedes it, vi’datem – and you shall know that God is haShem your God. (Exodus 6:8).  Only after this does that next verb, v’hei’veiti, I will bring, matter.


Linking the miracle of Israel to knowing God is challenging.  On so many levels, Jews are seeking to blend in, to not make waves – to thrive in another’s culture – and here, this discussion – should it be four cups or five, reinforces an extraordinary nature of our living in this world.  This inherent and abiding connection to God is so often manipulated and misunderstood – and I do not possess a way for us to read this question, which is authoritative and absolute.


And yet, having God at the center of all – struggling and not being satisfied with the great work that God has already done for our ancestors is powerful – reading ourselves at the center of a story that continues can change us and our attitudes.  In our rituals and in our religion we are not then serving some vague promise that was given in the Ancient Near Eastern pillar of fire and cloud.  These gestures, these matters have not departed from us – and on this day, when we set fresh goals for ourselves, we should hearken to the words of William Faulkner – “the past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”


I am not suggesting that our passions over whether or not there are four cups or five cups of wine at our seder shall move us into untold heights.  However, learning after the Vilna Gaon, are there questions that we have that matter to us and merit a response from Elijah, himself?  Perhaps, basing ourselves in this question regarding Israel – our question is about the essence of Israel?  The nature and the character of a Jewish State?  Can a flourishing, vibrant Judaism coexist with a reliable and consistent democracy?  Should it?  How do we mark these debates at our table – by pouring wine and not drinking it – leaving it for Elijah?  Perhaps we should drink it, illustrating that we must take it within ourselves to address these questions, internalizing this question, so to speak – or perhaps in a showing of drastic or desperate faith, we should pour out this wine as a reminder that there are some things that we will know and cannot answer.


Why does God subdivide our redemption into stages in the first place?  Why is our deliverance from our groaning in pieces – why not God’s outstretched arm saving us in one fluid motion?  What are the stages of redemption meant to show us?  Let us involve ourselves in our essential questions – questions that affect us in our intimate relationships and these questions that loom over and determine our community and our world.  We are in between the great movements of history – they are occurring as we live and as we pay attention, our lives increase in richness and in purpose.  It all comes down to our questions – and with our stream of pure hearted and urgent questions – having these questions matter to us in a non-recreational, non-discretionary way comes the timeless fulfillment of God’s promises of redemption.


Four or five cups?  It makes all the difference in the world.


Shabbat Shalom.





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