Chai Posner

The other message of the four cups: An ancient message for current times

Though the exodus of Egypt occurred thousands of years ago, there are many lessons that can be gleaned from the Pesach story and applied to our current presidential election. Chief amongst them is the importance of the right leader.   Our past has taught us the danger of the rise to power of the wrong kind of ruler. It all started in Egypt with, “and a new king arose in Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Shmot 1:8) But we’ve also seen it in Russia, in Germany, and in a myriad of other countries at different times throughout our history. And so, it most certainly is understandable that we find ourselves feeling anxious and tense over how things will turn out, given our current political climate.  I would suggest that it’s especially at times like this, that we must look to the four cups of wine for answers.

It is commonly understood that the four cups represent the four languages of redemption that are used in the Torah. God tells Moshe to instruct the nation:

“I will take you out (V’hotzeiti) from under the burdens of Egypt, I will save you (V’hitzalti) from their work, and I will redeem you (V’gaalti) with an outstretched arm and with great judgements… And I will take you (V’lakachti) as a nation for Me.” (Shmot 6:6-7)

The four cups that we drink, according to this interpretation, represent the openly wondrous miracles that God used to free us from our life of oppression. This is a theme that we stress repeatedly at the Seder and in general throughout Pesach.  It culminates in the splitting of the sea and its accompanying song that we read about on the seventh day of Pesach, “And Israel saw the great Hand that God brought against the Egyptians.” (Shmot 14:31)

Interestingly, though, this is only one representation of the four cups. The Midrash lists a number of other suggestions, one of which I’d like to discuss.  According to the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 88:5), another four cups reference is contained in a different, perhaps surprising, place.  In the conversation that takes place between Yosef and the butler following the butler’s dream, the word cup appears four times (Bereshit 40:11-13). This approach fits nicely, because the number four is clearly connected to the word cup, as opposed to the languages of redemption approach, which has no clear reference to cups. However, the difficulty is that Yosef’s conversation with the butler is seemingly unconnected to the Pesach Seder, and certainly not reflective of the redemption we underwent.

One might suggest that the cups of wine at the Seder serve as a sign of our nation’s freedom from Egypt, while Yosef’s conversation with the butler resulted in Yosef’s own, personal freedom and subsequent rise to power. The lesson here would be that at the Seder we not only celebrate our national freedom as a whole, but also our own, individual, personal freedom.  However, this answer still leaves something to be desired.  After all, though the cups from the Yosef story did lead to Yosef’s personal freedom from jail, Yosef’s subsequent rise to power was also responsible for the descent to Egypt of his brothers and father. The butler’s cups, then, while freeing Yosef, also precipitated the beginning of the enslavement of the Jewish people.  However, it is the end of this very enslavement that is celebrated through the four cups of wine at the Seder.

I would suggest that there is a deeper connection between Yosef’s episode and the Pesach Seder. The takeaway from this alternative approach is that God is accessible not only through the great wonders (the four languages of redemption), but that God is also present in the daily, outwardly mundane moments of our lives (Yosef’s conversation with the butler).  God was not there only to take us out of Egypt; God was there years earlier with Yosef in Egypt, as he tried to survive in Pharaoh’s prison.  Clearly, God was there with us during our time of redemption, but God was also there with us during the years of our slavery.  At the Seder it is important that we remember that while we yearn to see God’s outstretched arm and great wonders, we should not overlook the daily miraculous happenings of our own lives.

The four cups represent not only the openly miraculous, redemptive moments, but also the frequently overlooked seemingly ordinary steps toward redemption.

This is a point that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik makes powerfully in comments on an earlier part of the Yosef story.  When Yaakov sent Yosef to find his brothers, Yosef encountered a man, an Ish, who told Yosef where the brothers could be found. In that moment, he may have been just “a man”, but think about what a critical part of the whole story this anonymous man would end up playing.  Without that angel, Yosef may have never found his brothers or been taken down to Egypt.  How would our history have played out?  In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words:

“The Ish was not just a man.  He was more than that.  This Ish was the angel who watches over Jewish history, who, as the plenipotentiary of the Almighty, guides its events and pursues its objectives.” (Days of Deliverance P. 157)  It was all part of the Divine plan, and yet, at the time, there is certainly no indication in the text that Yosef recognized the enormity of his encounter with this man.

I can’t help but think of this as we head into Pesach during this presidential election year. It certainly feels as if this is the most significant election in recent memory.  The world finds itself in a precarious situation, and Israel, located in the ever mounting volatile Middle East, is looking for as much support as possible.  The tension and angst amongst American Jews in particular is palpable as we listen to each candidate’s proposed policies and promises, as they vie to become one of the most powerful people in the world.  As our own history has shown we are certainly justified in our apprehension and wariness.   But, in our heightened sense of anxiety let us also remember that God is here.  Yes, we must do our part.  We must do all that we can to ensure that the next President of the United States will be supportive and loyal to Israel.  This is necessary for the good of Israel, the United States and the entire free world.   We must vote, lobby, and engage in our political system.   But as we fixate on the presidential election it sometimes feels like we’ve forgotten Who really runs the world.

Where is God in all of this?

For some reason we tend to compartmentalize the God of the biblical stories from the God we experience in our own lives. But it need not be that way, and Yosef is the proof. Shockingly, the Torah does not record even one instance of God speaking to Yosef, and yet it is clear not only that God is with him, but also that Yosef indeed felt God’s presence in his life.

Time and time again, the Torah stresses God being with Yosef, and Yosef repeatedly refers to God’s involvement and influence on his life.  Although we don’t experience God’s four languages of redemption today, we can feel God’s presence in our lives.  Along with our own actions and plans, let us look for inspiration in the other message of the four cups.  Let us remember the story of Yosef and the butler, and God’s guiding hand in the background.

I won’t tell others what to believe, but I can describe what I believe. I believe that God is here, today, with us, just as God was there with Yosef.  I believe that we can feel the presence of God all around, watching and guiding us along the shifting paths of our lives.  And I certainly believe in God’s promise to redeem us once again.  I trust the One who made that promise. I’m afraid I cannot say the same about any of our presidential candidates, and their campaign promises.

As we sit down to the Pesach Seder, we are all Yosef, wandering in the desert, looking for something. We are all Yosef, finding ourselves unfairly thrown into the prisons of life with no sense of how to attain true liberty.  But, we are also all Yosef, capable of encountering God’s outstretched Arm at every turn.  Perhaps we experience a different Hand of God than the One we saw at the splitting of the sea.  It may be stretched out to each of us, quietly – not loudly; it is gentle – not overbearing.  Stretched out to help guide, lead, and even embrace us.  Let us feel that embrace and hopefully each one of us may even merit to reach back with loyalty, love, and devotion.

About the Author
Rabbi Chai Posner is Associate Rabbi of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore Maryland, where he has served since receiving his Semicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2010.