The Fifth Cup: Those who sustain Israel are God’s agents

BY RABBI JOSEPH A. DAVIDSON

Though it’s a bit early to be thinking of Passover, this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, contains the verses to which each of the four cups plus Elijah’s cup of wine are linked. Each one is a promise that the text indicates God made to these patriarchal ancestors with regard to their progeny. God’s covenant with them would remain intact, despite hundreds of years of oppression and servitude in Egypt. In time God would “bring [them] out from under the bondage of Egypt, deliver [them] from [their] servitude, redeem [them] with an outstretched arm and great judgments, take [them] to Me as a people, so that [they] would know that I am Hashem [their] God, Who brought [them] out from under the bondage of Egypt. And I will bring [them] to the Land over which I designated to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, giving it to [them] as an inheritance. I am Hashem.” With each promise, a cup is poured.

Indeed, God delivered all of these promises within a relatively short span of history. God did bring the Israelites out of Egypt. God did deliver them from their servitude. God did redeem them with might and miracles. God did take them as a people in special relationship with God, so that the Israelites would know that God is God. Under Moses’ leadership, God did bring them to the Promised Land, and they were able to conquer it and resettle it under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ executive officer and successor. All five of these promises were fulfilled.

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The question, then, is why are only four cups of wine consumed at the Passover seder and not five? If all of the promises were fulfilled, then all five should be consumed.

When the Passover seder was transformed from the “fast food” experience described in the Torah to the luxuriously languid dining experience that is common today, the descendants of the Israelites, the Jewish people, were no longer sovereign in their own land. Rather, the Temple was nearing the point when it would be destroyed by the oppressive Romans, and the Jewish people were on the verge of being exiled to the four corners of the earth. There was a question among the rabbis as to whether or not this fifth promise remained fulfilled, and certainly that doubt was reinforced by the destruction, the exile and the renaming of the country of Judah to Palestine, the Roman version of Philistia (home of the Philistines). Some argued that God had brought the Israelites to the Land, not once but twice when the Babylonian conquest and exile was taken into account. Others argued, however, that the Jewish people were spread out among the other nations of the world, potentially recreating the situation when Jacob and his family first went down to Egypt to sojourn. There was no decision on the matter, so the rabbis decided to let Elijah the Prophet, the forerunner of the Messiah, decide the issue. That is why there is a fifth cup of wine poured from which no one drinks. It is there for Elijah. When Elijah drinks from the cup, it will be signal that the decision is to drink from it, as the Land and the people of Israel are once again reunited.

Today there is a State of Israel, and every Jew in the world is a potential citizen. The Law of Return insures that any Jew may immigrate to Israel and, without question, without a period of landed immigrant status, become a citizen immediately. Never again will Jews be stateless and homeless, depending upon the kindness of host countries for their survival. The Jewish people are not slaves, as they were in Egypt. There have been times when we were oppressed terribly by our hosts, but the people have survived and continued to contribute to the world. There is a purpose for Jewish existence — to know that Hashem is God, Who brought those ancestors out of Egypt, out of their terrible bondage, to establish a special relationship with one another. The Jewish people have been entrusted with the mission of spreading that knowledge to all peoples of the earth, through example and through survival. The miracle of Jewish survival despite the destruction of the Temple, despite the exile of the people from the Land, despite the oppression and the terror of persecution and of the Holocaust has also been part of its mission and proof of the people’s special relationship with God.

The Jewish people open the door for Elijah at each seder meal. With optimism, we look to the arrival of this special guest to indicate whether or not that fifth cup of wine may be consumed, for that will signal the fulfillment of the promise made to the patriarchs some four thousand years ago. However, the Jewish people do not simply sit in our chairs and wait. The founders and those who continue to sustain the State of Israel are God’s agents in bringing about that final redemption. Just as one praises God for bringing bread from the earth, when, in actually, bread is produced only by the sweat of human brows, so, too, will God bring the Jewish people from the four corners of the earth through human beings, Jews, who create a country such as Israel to which all Jews may return and in which all Jews may experience complete freedom from the bondage associated with an unredeemed world.