Torah | Drink four cups in name of freedom, then keep going

Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesach

Exodus 33:12–34:26

Numbers 28:19–28:25

Ezekiel 37:1–14

A few days ago, we gathered around our holiday tables abundant with food. At every turn in the Passover seder, we were  reminded of the importance of the number four: four questions, four children, four ways of God redeeming us from Egypt, four cups of wine.

During the intermediate days of Passover, many of us easily recall how those glasses, filled with wine or grape juice, graced the  table.

As we carry these vibrant seder memories with us into the rest of the  holiday, we have an opportunity to continue reflecting on the mitzvah of drinking four cups of wine and how this relates to freedom in our own lives.

The biblical commentator Rabbi Ephraim of Luntschitz (Prague 1550-1619) offers two other interpretations of the significance of the four cups at the seder.

When those who are in prison are freed, they are obligated to drink four cups of wine in thanksgiving. The basis for this exhortation is found in the book of Jeremiah (15:2):

Those destined from the plague, to the plague; those destined for the sword, to the sword; those destined for famine, to famine; and those destined for captivity, to captivity.

When a person is imprisoned, he or she is in fourfold danger: captivity itself, the potential of losing life to plague, life to the sword or life to hunger.

Rabbi Johanan (Bava Batra 8b) notes that each punishment listed is worse than the one that comes before it because captivity incorporates them all. Therefore, when a person goes free from prison and drinks four cups of redemption, each of the cups symbolizes thanksgiving for being freed from captivity, the plague, the sword and hunger.

In other words, when you are a prisoner, one thing can lead to another. The domino effect of danger brought on by captivity increases fourfold our thankfulness to God who is responsible for our freedom.

Rabbi Ephraim’s teaching about the effect of captivity leads us to ask: How can we heighten our own awareness of freedom? In what way is our personal freedom possible due to the luck of the draw? Why have we been spared physical captivity and all the risks associated with it?

Rabbi Ephraim notes another significance of the number four, related to the Joseph story (Genesis 40). The word “cup” is mentioned four times in the recounting of the cup bearer’s dream. Joseph interprets his dream to mean the cupbearer will be freed from prison. This word repetition also indicates a prisoner’s obligation to drink four cups of wine upon being freed from prison.

I am struck by the correlation between Jeremiah’s four punishments and the four cups of thanksgiving and, on the other hand, the cupbearer’s redemption through a dream. Each interpretation offers such different visions of how redemption comes about.

Do we approach our redemption with logic? Four punishments directly correlated with four cups of wine? Or do we depend on four mentions of a single word in a prisoner’s dream?

No matter which interpretation resonates, Rabbi Johanan’s observation about Jeremiah’s fourfold prophecy and/or the counting of a word motif in a dream, we all mark redemption in the seder with the same act: the drinking of the four cups.

Just as we all drank different grape beverages on March 25, we may all have different ideas of exactly what redemption is in our lives. But we come together as a community around a seder table to acknowledge the power of freedom and thanksgiving with the same act: the drinking of the four cups. May this sacred act remain with us in the remaining days of Passover and in the months ahead as we continually dedicate ourselves to the value of freedom.

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.

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Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.