The Five Promises and Four Cups of Wine
On these six days before Pesah, we will post a Kavannah relating to one of the five promises God made to the Jewish people in the book of Shemot through Moshe. We invoke these promises during the seder and they serve as a reminder of how God brought us out of Egypt and delivered us to a physically and spiritually better place.
These reflections, prepared by BJ Rabbinic Fellows Sarit Horwitz, Alex Braver and Bryan Wexler (Youth and Family), will be emailed to the BJ community and published here and on our Facebook page.
Throughout the seder, we remember the promises that God made to the Jewish people in the book of Shemot through Moshe.
לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי יְהיָה וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים: וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי יְהיָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם: וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת־יָדִי לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה אֲנִי יְהיָה׃
Therefore, say to the Israelite people: I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and save you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I Adonai. (Exodus 6:6-8)
We invoke these promises during the seder and they serve as a reminder on Pesah and throughout the year of how God brought us out of Egypt and delivered us to a physically and spiritually better place. These promises remind us not only of our own history but they also serve as an imperative, which inspires and requires us to support those in the world facing injustice. What can we do to ensure that all people are freed, saved, redeemed, taken out, and brought to a better place?
Every day this week, leading up to the beginning of Pesah, you will receive a Kavannah relating to one of the promises in this passage from Exodus and connecting to one of the four cups of the seder. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesahim, ch. 10) teaches that we should connect the first four of these promises to the four cups of wine, and we suggest this framing as a useful way to use the Kavannot at your own seders. The fifth promise, “I will bring you” can be understood as our prayer and hope that God will bring about a land of peace and love, which also connects to the end of the seder when we sing, “next year in Yerushalayim!” We hope you enjoy these Kavannot throughout the week and we look forward to hearing how you’ve incorporated them into your seder!
Hozteiti וְהוֹצֵאתִי — I Will Free You, The First Cup
We drink the first cup of wine at the seder in honor of the first of God’s five promises:
וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם
With this cup we give thanks for the gift of freedom. However, this first promise also serves as a wake-up call; an opportunity to look inward and ask: What aspects of ourselves are still not free? What represents the mitzrayim (narrow straits or constriction) in our lives today? How can we begin the work to bring ourselves out from the depths of mitzrayim as we begin the process of redemption, growth, and change?
What are the aspects of ourselves that are in need of tikkun? What insecurities and fears do we carry with us? What is holding us back from moving forward? What is simply not working? Our tradition teaches: “meshane makom, meshane mazal”- by changing our place in life, we can change our fortune (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b). Sometimes, we just need to move. Yet taking the first step, initiating the change is often the hardest. When God brought B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt they left with many uncertainties. Where were they going? Would they make it safely to their final destination? Despite their uncertainties and doubts, I imagine that deep down in their hearts they knew one thing for sure- they had to move forward and could not look back.
The famous song of Dayenu begins
אִלּוּ הוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם…דַּיֵּנוּ
If God had only brought us out of Egypt (and not performed all the many other miracles for us) it would have been enough.
The first step is crucial and it allows for all of the others blessings to follow. For this first cup, let us look inwards and take the first step to rid ourselves of the mitzrayim
(narrowness) within us that holds us back. Finally, may we learn to appreciate the freedom that we have and may we strive to live in ways that honor this gift by using our freedom to liberate others.
Sometimes—in pursuit of personal and societal redemption—there comes a moment where we begin to feel, as the prophet Jeremiah (20:9) says, a “fire in the bones” that cannot be contained, where we realize with the fullness of our bodies and minds that we cannot ignore the work of redemption that is our responsibility. We all know the difference between feeling something in our bones, and just feeling something. When it comes to the work of inner and outer redemption, this difference can be crucial. Sometimes there might be a cause or a project that we take on in our pursuit of social justice, at first because we think we should, or because we were asked to help out, but it doesn’t quite feel initially like it’s “ours.” Or, there might be some aspect within ourselves that we know requires our attention and reflection, but it feels more like a chore than actual spiritual work.
The “fire in the bones” feeling is the difference between the first stage of redemption—being “brought out”—and this second one, of being “saved.” The Psalmist makes this point clear:
כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה, יי מִי כָמוֹךָ, מַצִּיל עָנִי, מֵחָזָק מִמֶּנּוּ, וְעָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, מִגֹּזְלוֹ
All my bones will say, “Adonai, who is like You, who saves the poor from the stronger, the poor and the needy from their despoiler?” (Psalm 35:10)
God claims the side of the poor and the weak over their oppressors; the story we tell and retell on Pesah is just one archetypal example. But God and the Psalmist call on us to go a step further, not just to take their side, but to hear our bones and the wholeness of our essence calling out for justice and redemption.
When you drink the second cup of wine, ask yourself: Where is your passion for taking the side of the weak? What modern day slavery do you feel your bones calling for you to fight against? What inner aspect of your spiritual redemption feels like it can no longer be ignored?
This Pesah Kavannah was prepared by BJ Rabbinic Fellow Alex Braver.
CC Image Courtesy of Cindy Cornett Seigle on Flickr.
In God’s third promise to the Israelites, God says:
וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm
For many years I struggled most with this promise. First, what does it mean to be redeemed, and second is redemption such a Jewish notion? Redemption is a key component of Jewish theology. It is central to many of our holidays (especially Pesah) and it is key to much of our liturgy. If we think about the progression of God’s promises to B’nei Yisrael, this third promise represents an important turning point. The previous two promises represented a “freedom from.” They inspire us to ask, what is holding us back? What enslaves us even to this day? But with this third promise of redemption our focus shifts from “freedom from” to “freedom to.” What freedom are we trying to move towards? Where are we hoping to go? Who are we hoping to become?
This Pesah, let us all ask: What are the redemptive moments in our lives? Today, I think of a transformative week I spent with our BJ teens in Nicaragua in February. Redemption is about social justice, helping those in need, and working to make this world a better place. Redemption requires a partnership with God, a recognition that the world is broken and that, because we are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), we have the ability and the moral imperative to work to make it whole again. Rabbi Robert Levine writes in his book There is No Messiah…And You’re It:
“We are taught that every one of us is created in the divine image. All of us can be holy through imitating God…. So, you don’t have to look around or look away. You don’t have to wait for someone to come and do what you were put on this earth to do in the first place. Judaism empowers you, as one of God’s anointed ones, to do more than you ever dreamed possible.”
I was blessed to watch 30 BJ messiahs, our teenagers, do their work in Nicaragua. We built latrines and helped build a house for visiting doctors. We brought Shabbat to Nicaragua, and we built a community. But most of all, we shook hands and offered hugs to the people we met in Jinotega. Our presence showed solidarity and sent the important message: “We see you.” We continued God’s work of redemption by extending an outstretched arm.
For this third cup, think about the redemptive moments in your life. How are you hoping to be moved and transformed this Pesah? Where is it that you are hoping to go? And, what would it mean to be a mashiach, someone who brings more care and wholeness into the world, for those who are in need of help, whether close or far? May we always be inspired to stretch out our arms to those in need.
This Pesah Kavannah was prepared by Rabbinic Fellow for Youth and Family Bryan Wexler.
CC Image Courtesy of Cristian Bernal on Flickr
Existing in transition—in liminal spaces—is one of the most difficult places to be. This is precisely the place where the fourth promise, the one of “lakahti,” leaves us. Lakahti means “I will take you out,” and God delivered on God’s promise of taking us out of the land of Egypt and the slavery inflicted upon us. What came after that was the desert. The openness, the undefined life, the hunger and thirst, and the unknown of what would come next. We read several times in the Torah that the Israelites complain, invoking the trope, “You took us out of Egypt for this?!” Sometimes, we have to ask if being taken out—without knowing what is waiting for us on the other side—is enough.
In the story of Exodus from Egypt (Shemot 1:9), when God demanded that the Israelites be freed from slavery, God said,
שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻ
“Let my people go so that they can serve Me.” God is telling the Israelites that they aren’t just leaving slavery in order to be free, they are leaving in order to be free to serve God. They are leaving in order to turn their experience into greater meaning, to have a higher purpose in the world.
This is also true of the fourth promise. The verse says
וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים
and I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be to you a God. Here, God promises not just to take us out but to be with us. God remains with us and reminds us that this promise isn’t just about God’s role in taking us out. It is about our constant awareness that with freedom comes the responsibility to hold ourselves accountable.
For this fourth cup, think about your own moments of transition. When were you taken out and didn’t know what would come next? What would have helped you in that time, regardless of how big or small that difficulty was? As we accept God’s promise to take us out and drink the fourth cup, let us remember those who remain enslaved, exploited, and oppressed and those who have been taken out but remain in transition.
This Pesah Kavannah was prepared by BJ Rabbinic Fellow Sarit Horwitz.
CC Image Courtesy of Yu on Flickr.
In discussing this idea of the promises of redemption, the Rabbis of the Talmud cite four examples in the Torah, but choose not to mention the last one, a fifth and final promise clearly present in the same exact section of the book of Exodus: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This omission has puzzled the commentators of our tradition for centuries, some of whom link this unfulfilled promise to a spiritual, messianic redemption that is still to come. This unfulfilled promise is symbolized by the cup of Elijah, the fifth glass of wine at the seder table, the glass that we do not drink.
In the seders of my childhood, the kids would leave the table to play while the adults continued to eat, schmooze, and argue at the table. At some point later in the evening, after we had come back for dessert and moved on with the seder, an adult would point to Elijah’s cup in melodramatic shock: Elijah came and drank the wine! Even as a young child I was somewhat skeptical, but held on to a willing suspension of disbelief. And now, still, there’s a part of me that wants to wait for an adult to step in and – without my noticing – drink the fifth cup, proving that Elijah did in fact visit us. But when will I be the one to secretly take on the role of Elijah, heralding the final redemption and fulfilling the last, unspoken promise in Exodus to bring us home?
Even if we make it through the four stages of redemption, there is always another step, something that remains unredeemed, a glass of wine that remains undrunk. Even when we think we’ve done our part in completing the work of redemption – inner or outer, spiritual or communal, local or global – we soon find ourselves waiting again, looking for a hint – any hint, even if it means suspending our disbelief – that Elijah has come. The fifth cup, and the true fulfillment of our tradition’s promise of redemption, is always l’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim, next year, in Jerusalem. In the meantime, how can we act as our own Elijah? What type of Jerusalem will we build for ourselves? How can we bring peace and redemption to ourselves, to Israel, and to the world?
This Pesah Kavannah was prepared by BJ Rabbinic Fellow Alex Braver.
CC Image Courtesy of Mark H. Anbinder on Flickr.