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Four and Five: Pesach’s Message To Us. How Shall We Respond To Existential Threat

The numbers four and five dominate the Pesach Seder.

  • We drink four cups of wine but pour a fifth for Eliahu
  • We unequivocally acknowledge four expressions of redemption (Exodus 6:6-7) but conjecture that there may be a fifth (6:8 – “I shall bring you [all] into the Land”).
  • We portray four types of child but reflect upon a fifth – the child ‘lost’ to Judaism who we trust will return in the future.
  • We cite four verses from Sefer Devarim (26:5-8) in the main body of the Maggid (narration) section chronicling our travail and our deliverance. Only after the narration is concluded do we mention a fifth verse (6:23) explaining that the endgame of the deliverance was to take us into Erets Yisrael as a free and holy nation.
  • We ask four questions (Ma Nishtana) but pass over a fifth enquiring about the eating of roasted meat which will only be restored in Messianic times.
  • We seat ourselves and our guests around all four sides of our table (or, in Mishnaic times, on couches on all four sides of our room) whilst not forgetting a fifth Presence – the Protection of G-D – as He, not Moses (who gets but one casual, passing mention), was, is and will be our real Redeemer.
  • The Midrash (Vayikra Raba, Emor section 32) declares that in the merit of four virtues the people of Israel were redeemed: (i) they did not jettison their Hebrew names,(ii) or language,(iii) they didn’t inform against each other and (iv) not one of them was sexually promiscuous. Elsewhere, Midrashic sources point to a fifth virtue: they did not alter their (modest) mode of dress.

In this essay I wish to showcase another famous ‘four’ cited in the Mekhilta (Beshallakh III), a midrashic commentary, based on a studied analysis of the various clauses of Exodus 14:13-14 (which the reader is invited to examine for him/herself)!

States the Mekhilta: At the banks of the Reed Sea, Am Yisrael with the Egyptians in hot pursuit split into four factions. We shall examine the factions and their reactions to the existential threat one by one and uncover a concealed fifth approach. We shall then attempt to cite latter-day parallels.

  • The first group said: “Let’s throw ourselves into the sea and drown rather than be captured!” It’s the end!  
  • The second group said: “Let’s return to Egypt!” We surrender!
  • The third group said: “Let’s fight the Egyptians!” Do or die!
  • The fourth group said: “Let’s cry out kenegdam [facing them/against them].” There are differing interpretations here. According to one, this group wanted to make a big noise in the vain hope that it would intimidate the Egyptians. According to another, they cried out to G-D in desperation. Either way, desperate measures.

There is evidence for this last interpretation in the Torah text itself. The Bnei Yisrael raised their eyes and beheld the whole of Egypt chasing after them. They were very frightened, and the Bnei Yisrael cried out to G-D (Exodus 14:10).

Judging by the words they subsequently (vs.11-12) throw at Moses (Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert …..) it is a safe bet that their cry to G-D would also have been a cry of despair and perhaps bitterness.

So all four of these factional reactions to the existential threat facing Bnei Yisrael are negative. They are approaches born of despair, reeking of desperation, of the feeling that there is no other solution to the crisis – as I have endeavored to show with my italicized summary-comments above.

Is there a fifth approach to combating the enemy threat? One that could carry Bnei Yisrael forward to a positive outcome?

The Torah itself tells us, yes. G-D said to Moses: Why are you invoking Me? Speak to the Bnei Yisrael that they go forward.(v.15).

What happened next is also famously chronicled in the Mekhilta. According to R’ Yehuda, while everyone was shying away from being the first to take the plunge, Nachshon of the tribe of Judah became the fifth faction, gallantly leaping into the sea up to his neck whereupon the sea split. There is also a not-so-well-known opinion of R’ Meir that it was the whole of the tribe of Binyamin that bravely took the plunge.

Whether it was Nachshon or shevet Binyamin, there is no question that this fifth approach was at last borne not of despair but of faith and hope.

Today too, there are similar factions among world Jewry, similar responses to our unique existential situation.

  • Those who believe that Judaism is about “throwing ourselves into the sea”. For these Jews, martyrdom is the ultimate Jewish experience. We are destined forever to be the “suffering servant” of humanity. This is the approach of many among the 95 percent of Australian Jewish respondents who, in the recent Gen-17 survey, reportedly cited “remembering the Holocaust” as the most important identifier of Jewish identity.
  • Those who want to “return to Egypt”, who believe that the ‘experiment’ of the State of Israel was a big mistake; that we should ‘give back’ our land to the Palestinian Arabs and return to the Diaspora experience. This is the approach of hard-left anti-Zionism and, from a very different perspective, the ultra-right Neturei Karta.
  • Those who say there is no alternative than to “fight the Egyptians”. These Jews believe that we are destined forever to be in a state of war with our Arab neighbors and there is no hope for a solution to the conflict.
  • Those who feel the only way is to make a “big noise”. These are the hasbara-niks who feel that nothing matters except attempting to get the right message across via political propaganda; yet they continue to despair because the Palestinian narrative tends to resonate so much more effectively among human-rights activists who see Israelis not as fulfillers of a historic destiny but as usurpers and colonialists in a land which is not theirs (as Rashi famously predicted in his very first comment on the Bible!)

The other interpretation of faction four’s approach embraces those who constantly cry “where are You, G-D”, failing to see His hand in our destiny.

But there is a fifth approach. The approach of hope and faith! The approach of moving forward step by hopeful step. Of believing in a glorious and fulfilling destiny in our own land in ultimate peace!

That was the approach of Nachshon and/or shevet Binyamin. And that’s the approach G-D wants. He tells us so (Ex. 14:15). He desires us “to go forward” with faith, hope and optimism.

A bright future lies ahead for Klal Yisrael. It will not end in mass martyrdom, nor by a mass yerida back to the Diaspora, nor by our own best-laid plans of warfare and propaganda based on secular considerations and the assumption that “sadly there’s no choice”. Such attitudes must inevitably result in despair.

It’s going to happen because G-D has a plan and a destiny for us provided we believe and that we demonstrate our belief by moving ever forward with faith and strength.

Israel was inspired to adopt as its national anthem a prayerful poem entitled HaTikva –  “The Hope!” Please G-D it will not be long before we shall be again a free and holy people united in our Land. Then we shall drink a fifth cup of wine over our ultimate salvation!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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