The number four has mystic meaning


We Jews are obsessed with the number four, as this mystical number — according to our Sages of blessed memory — represents wholeness and completion. This preoccupation is never more evident than during the Festival of Pesach when the number four is utterly ubiquitous — four cups of wine; four questions; four sons; four verbs for liberation (actually, there are five, but who’s really counting anyway?), etc.

Interestingly, the number four continues to make appearances throughout Pesach including during one of the lesser-known highlights of the chag (holiday), which takes place on the seventh day of the Festival (this year on Shabbat — April 25 at night and 26 during the day). Shvii (the seventh day) Shel Pesach marks the anniversary of Kriyat Yam Suf, the miraculous Crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Appropriately, on this day we read the passage from the Book of Exodus describing the circumstances of our deliverance from the Pharaoh and his mighty minions mounted on their horse-drawn chariots.

In the collection of Rabbinic Midrashim known as the Mechilta, we find additional and fascinating details that complements the Pshat — the simplest or basic understanding — of the text described in our holy Torah.

As the Egyptian chariots drew near, the Israelites began to panic. And as is so often the case in stressful situations, the people began to discuss and debate amongst themselves what the best course of action would be. Some suggested leaping in to the sea so as to avoid being subjected — once again — to Egyptian brutality. Another group proposed to simply acquiesce and return to the life of servitude that they had endured for centuries. Still others favored waging war on their attackers; as an “honorable” death in battle would be a far better fate than a life of bitter slavery. A fourth and final group promulgated a very different approach. Cry out to the Lord and pray as a community, they said. Surely the Holy-Blessed-One will then deliver us from our enemies.

How very odd — especially for Jews! A crisis emerges and the community splinters off in four divergent directions in an attempt to address the challenge. Unheard of? But of course not! Jews have always maintained the right to express differing — and even contradictory — opinions.

However, to my mind, there is much more to glean from this section of the rabbinic Midrash than a simple affirmation of the obvious (and frankly rather trite!) truism that Jews relish the opportunity to promote conflicting opinions. Each of the four aforementioned approaches to the challenge presented by the advancing of the Egyptian army actually suggests a unique approach to our religious/spiritual duty to be of service to God and humanity.

Those who suggested “leaping in to the sea” represent Jews who are concerned only with their own survival. They believe that all those who do not practice Judaism in the way that they see as right and true will eventually be lost to the Jewish People forever. They are isolationists, “shtetl Jews”, who look to totally disengage from the “secular world”.

Those who advocated a “return to Egyptian slavery” are Jews who have given up hope. Their actions indicate a deep sense of despair in the face of the many challenges and difficulties that one faces when doing God’s work in the world. They have abdicated responsibility, believing that there is nothing that they can personally do to bring about change.

The third group of Jews — those who promulgated the notion of “waging war on the Egyptians” — are representative of the members of our people who feel the need to constantly and continually be defending Judaism against external threats. These are our “ADL and AIPAC” Jews who “watchdog” the media in search of potential insult and affronts to our community.

The final group — those who promoted a strategy of “crying out to God” — represent those members of the House of Israel who submit themselves totally and unconditionally to the grace of the Almighty. Their motto or slogan is “no need to worry, God will provide. All we need is Emunah — faith”.

Clearly, many of us find ourselves in different camps at differing moments in our lives. However, just as with our Passover Seders (Sedarim), our community needs to hear and honor each of these voices. For in the end, the wholeness and completion that are represented by the number four — and which we so desperately yearn for — can only be found when we make room for all the members of our communal family.

May this Passover — and most especially this Shvii Shel Pesach — be a time of openness and inclusion for our community. May we find the courage and strength to make the necessary space in our homes, our hearts and at our Yontiff tables, for all those who cast their lot with the Nation of Israel. And in this way, hasten a time of wholeness and completion — a time of true tikkun — for our people. Amen!

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose serves as senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona.