Lisa Liel

The Four Cups and the Path to Redemption

Our Sages tell us that “Ain bein ha’olam ha’zeh liymot ha’mashiach ela shi’abud malkhuyot bilvad.” The only difference between the current world and the Messianic era is the absence of Shi’abud Malkhuyot: the enslavement of the nations of the world.

Some have interpreted this to mean that the Messianic era will differ only in that Jews won’t be oppressed by the gentile nations. But I think it means more than that.

In the Jewish view of history, there are four kingdoms which oppressed/are oppressing the Jewish People: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The sequence of these four nations is alluded to all over the Bible: in the second verse of Genesis, in God’s covenant with Abraham, in the book of Daniel, and throughout the prophets. These nations are known in Jewish thought as the Arba Malkhuyot (four kingdoms). We also speak of Arba Galuyot, or four exiles, one per kingdom, with the Roman Exile (Galut Edom) continuing to this day.

The four exiles and four kingdoms are sometimes referred to as though they are one and the same. How can this be, though? While we may still be in the fourth of the four exiles, we aren’t being oppressed by Babylon or Persia (despite the boasts of Iran) or Greece.

Or are we?

The answer to this seeming puzzle lies in the exile which, for us, is the paradigm of all exiles. The Exile of Egypt. When God freed us from Egyptian bondage, the Torah uses four terms of redemption:

  • I will take you out (v’hotzeiti et’khem) from the land of Egypt,
  • And I will save you (v’hitzalti et’khem) from serving them.
  • And I will redeem you (v’gaalti et’khem) from slavery to freedom,
  • And I will take you (v’lakachti et’khem) to Me as a nation”.

These four languages of redemption are the source of the four cups we drink at the seder. And they are parallel to the four exiles, as well as to the four kingdoms. As the Sages tell us, the early experiences of the Jews are a foreshadowing of what we will experience throughout history (maaseh avot siman l’vanim). For us, history truly does repeat itself. Our slavery in Egypt is a forerunner of all the times we would be oppressed by the nations of the world.

When we left Egypt, we learned that sitting in exile is not our norm. When we reached the Red Sea and God saved us from the Egyptian army, we learned that we can rely only on God. When we fought Amalek and defeated them, we learned that we are deserving of victory against our enemies. And when we stood at Mount Sinai, we learned that we are one people. Not merely tribes, but something greater than the sum of our parts.

The four exiles at the hands of the four kingdoms destroyed these four lessons.

Shi’abud Bavel – The Babylonian Exile

The Jewish People was sovereign in our own land, until the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and took us off into Exile. This was the beginning of Shi’abud Malkhuyot. The Shi’abud in question, though, was not simply a physical subjugation. It was a psychological one. It was the negation of the first expression of redemption: “I will take you out (v’hotzeiti et’khem) from the Land of Egypt.” Taking us out of Egypt was intended to be the equivalent of returning us to our own land, and had we not sinned, it would have been so in fact as well.

The result of the Babylonian Exile was not merely the destruction of the Temple and our physical exile; it was the creation of a new worldview in the minds of the Jewish people. A worldview that said there was nothing strange about us living outside of our own land. That didn’t look at exile as something intrinsically wrong. but as a natural way of things.

How many Jews today, even the fiercest of Zionists, actually look at the fact that there are Jews living outside of Israel and say, “How totally bizarre!” They don’t like it. They rail against it. But they don’t find it unnatural. This was the Shi’abud of Babylon, and it continues to this day.

Shi’abud Paras u’Madai (the Medo-Persian Exile)

We were willing exiles, but we still understood that God is the only One upon whom we can truly depend. Until the Medes and Persians came along. The story of Esther and Mordechai is one that shows that even when it seems as if we are saved by natural means, it is truly God operating behind the scenes, so to speak, who is responsible.

That is the message that the Sages teach us. But what did the average Jew understand at the time it was happening? We were endangered by Haman, who worked through the temporal powers of the time (Ahasuerus) to try and destroy us. The answer? Mordechai working through the same temporal power to save us.

What we learned, as a nation, and what worked its way into the very consciousness of the Jewish people, was that we are dependent upon the good will of the nations of the world. That in order to be safe, we must ingratiate ourselves with them.

This was the negation of the second expression of redemption: “I will save you (v’hitzalti et’khem) from serving them.” We forgot that it is God who saves us. How often do we hear even “religious” Jews, who lay claim to tremendous faith in God, saying things like, “But Israel needs America”? Try telling one of these people that all we need is God, and watch the incredulous looks. Some people will accept, in theory, that this is so. But in their guts, Jews “know” that we are dependent on nations such as America. This was the Shi’abud of Medo-Persia, and it too continues to this day.

Shi’abud Yavan (The Greek Exile)

We were comfortable with the idea that most of us lived outside of our land, and that we had to depend on our “hosts” for protection. But we still believed in ourselves. We still possessed the self-respect of a people that knows it is special. That possesses a sense of pride. And then Greece came along. And Hellenism came along. And Jews began to be embarrassed at how “backwards” we were compared to the “civilized” Hellenes. And they began to believe, in their heart of hearts, that Greek culture was superior to the culture of the Torah.

The Maccabees fought a gallant fight against this phenomenon, but to no avail in the long run. The Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, came to embrace Hellenism themselves.

This was the negation of the third expression of redemption: “I will redeem you (v’gaalti et’khem) from slavery to freedom.” In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, the progression of the middle thirteen blessings is understood to be the order of events in the eventual redemption of the Jewish people. The blessing “Gaal Yisrael”, or “Who redeems Israel”, speaks of God fighting our battles. Of our special status as His people. The Shi’abud of Greece was the loss of this belief in the hearts of the Jewish people. Even as we continued to claim that we were His chosen people, a growing segment of the population just didn’t really believe this anymore.

Even many “religious” Jews today feel that they are “religious” because that’s just what we do. It’s our ethnicity. Does God really see us as special? Ask this question and you are likely to hear that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. This is what our fathers did, and this is what we’ll do as well. The Shi’abud of Greece, like those before it, remains with us to this day.

Shi’abud Edom (The Roman/Edomite Exile)

The Jewish people was in a bad way. We had been uprooted from our land, made dependent on other nations, and had lost any real faith in our purpose. But we at least remained a single, united people. Because we had the Torah. And the Torah mandated system of courts that ensured that it was the same Torah for all of us. That the same rules applied to everyone, no matter who they were or where they lived. The pinnacle of this system, the apex, the crown, was the Sanhedrin. It was the Sanhedrin which had the final word on what Jewish law in fact was. It was the Sanhedrin which served as the linchpin, holding the entire Jewish people, scattered as it was, together.

And then Rome came along.

The Romans were smart. They understood the importance of the Sanhedrin. To give “credit” where it is due, they were informed of this by turncoat Jews, but the source of the knowledge is unimportant. Seeing that even in exile, even strewn to the four corners of the world, the Jewish people stubbornly retained its national identity, they went for the jugular. They disbanded the Sanhedrin and instituted capital punishment for any Jew daring to give smicha-ordination to another. The special ordination that carried with it the unimpeachable authority stretching in an unbroken chain from Sinai.

The Romans were successful. But much, much more than they could have dreamed of. Because they didn’t merely eliminate the Sanhedrin, and destroy the pure authority that had united the Jewish people and made it whole, but like their predecessors, they taught us the most awful of lessons. They taught us that this was normal. That it was natural for us to be without a central authority.

How often have you heard Jews actually bragging, “We don’t have a single authority like the Catholics, with their Pope. We’re pluralistic, we are.” And today, even with the return of so many Jews to the Land of Israel, even with a growing number of rabbis speaking out about how the failure to convene a central authority to determine a unified law for all Jews is a breach of Torah law, nothing is done.

Today, there is no Jewish People. Merely a sad collection of Jewish communities, with scarcely more than a memory of what we once were and one day will be again. This is what Rome did to us. This is the Shi’abud of Rome, and like the Shi’abud of Babylon, the Shi’abud of Medo-Persia and the Shi’abud of Greece, it is with us to this day.

And this is why we speak of the Shi’abud Malkhuyot, in plural. Because they are all with us, lessons that we learned in our souls and have clung to as stubbornly as we have to our traditions.

Redemption: Reversing the Trend

But this is not the end of the story. By no means. As the Shi’abud Malkhuyot came, so will they go, and that process has already begun. The problem is that the process of ridding ourselves of these “lessons” is a cumulative one.

In the 18th century, the Vilna Gaon announced that the time to return to the Land of Israel had come. Following his direction, many of his students moved to Israel, desolate as it was. This began a trickle of return which increased even more with the birth of the secular movement of Zionism. With all of its faults, Zionism was a basic negation of the Shi’abud of Babylon. And a partial fulfillment of God’s promise: “I will take you out (v’hotzeiti et’khem) from the land of Egypt.”

But Zionism petered out. So long as we still believed that we were dependent on the non-Jewish nations, so long as we failed to believe in our special purpose, so long as we remained a fragmented people, a religion rather than a nation, the draw to Israel was seriously limited.

And then the State of Israel was born. In the face of opposition from most of the world, we stood up to them and said: “We don’t need you.” The sentiment was flawed, in that it failed to recall that we do need God, but it was a start. And miraculously, the same nations that had oppressed us for so long chose to support us in our independence. With all of its faults, the fight for and establishment of the State of Israel was a basic negation of the Shi’abud of Medo-Persia. And a partial fulfillment of God’s promise: “And I will save you (v’hitzalti et’khem) from serving them.”

And the attainment of this second level of redemption added to the previous one as well. With the rise of the State of Israel, Jews flooded into the Land.

But the State was rotten within from its very inception. So long as we failed to believe in our special purpose we were just one more colonial creation in an area where we weren’t wanted. So long as we remained a collection of religious communities the world over, there was no raison d’etre for the state. And not only did the flow of Jews to Israel slow down to a sad crawl, but the proud stand of the Jews of Israel in the face of the nations of the world was worn away to nothing.

And then the Teshuva Movement began. Are there even words for such a miracle? For the first time since Sinai, Jews in large and increasing numbers, raised knowing nothing at all of Judaism and of Torah, began to seek out their roots and return to the ways of their fathers. It was the very antithesis of the Shi’abud of Greece. Where the Hellenized Jews had fled Judaism and Jewishness, Jews young and old turned around and came home. Our Sages teach that “There is no freedom but the yoke of heaven.” And the Teshuva Movement was a partial fulfillment of God’s promise: “And I will redeem you (v’gaalti et’khem) from slavery to freedom.”

And it was more than just the Teshuva Movement. The cultural and spiritual bankruptcy of the socialist left that founded the state left a vacuum, and faced with that vacuum, the younger generations have moved back towards Judaism. Towards belief in God. Very gradually towards observance.

Nor was all of this ineffective in battling the Shi’abudim of Babylon and Medo-Persia. For years, the bulk of those Jews who returned to the Land of Israel were religious Jews. Those Jews who support the stand of Israel against world pressure to surrender are almost entirely religious, or spiritually seeking Jewishness as well. The Jews who resisted the return to Judaism were the same Jews who dreamed only to leave Israel or to remake it in the image of the western nations they idolized.

But this movement could only go so far. And although it has not stopped, it has slowed to a trickle. Because the four expressions of redemption are cumulative. And none of them can reach their culmination without the next one. Today, even growing segments of the religious community, segments that were once at the forefront of the fight for Israel as a special place, a place where Jews would stand tall and be what we were intended to be, even here, there is a growing sentiment that says, “Perhaps we truly are dependent on the non-Jews after all. Perhaps we really do need to bow to their notions of propriety.”

And this should come as no surprise. Because none of the levels of redemption can be fulfilled in their entirety so long as Shi’abud Malkhuyot remains.

The key, the final element and expression of redemption, is the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin. The one act that will constitute a fulfillment of God’s promise: “And I will take you (v’lakachti) to Me as a nation.” The verb “to take” has the connotation in Jewish law of marriage. The Revelation at Sinai is considered by the Sages to have been a marriage of God and Israel. It was there that we truly became His people.

The Arba Leshonot Geula, or four expressions of redemption, were promises for the time of our forefathers, and not only a prophecy of things to come. God did take us out of Egypt. At the Red Sea, He taught us that He is the source of our salvation and that we can rely on no other. At Rephidim, when the Amalekites attacked us, He taught us that only when we looked towards heaven and recalled our special relationship with God could we prevail. And at Sinai, He made us His own people.

It is this last element that keeps us from the final redemption. It doesn’t matter if the central authority is made up of rabbis with true smicha-ordination or not. God never asks of us that which cannot be done. But so long as we have no unified identity, the vast majority of Jews will have no interest in Judaism. So long as we remain a mostly secular people, the vast majority of Jews will never believe that we can stand against the world. And so long as we have no sense of pride, the vast majority of Jews will go on living out their lives among the nations of the world and see nothing at all wrong with it.

Ain bein ha’olam ha’zeh liymot ha’mashiach ela shi’abud malkhuyot bilvad.”

There is nothing between this world and the Messianic era but Shi’abud Malkhuyot alone.

There is a pattern to history. It is there for all to see. We will achieve this final expression of redemption. May it be God’s will that we do so before more needless suffering comes to pass.

About the Author
Lisa Liel lives in Karmiel with her family. She works as a programmer/developer, reads a lot, watches too much TV, does research in Bronze/Iron Age archaeology of the Middle East, and argues a lot on Facebook.
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