Freedom and Responsibility
…I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people… I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… (Exodus 6:6)
On the day after the Passover offering, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the country, unleavened bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased… (Joshua 5:11-12)
The traditional answer to the question as to why we drink four cups of wine at the seder is that each cup represents one of the expressions of redemption in Exodus 6: God promises to "free, deliver, redeem, and take" us. Except that there are five expressions of redemption, the fifth being "I will bring you into the land." And indeed, there are some manuscripts of the Talmud (tractate Pesachim, page 118) in which five cups of wine are mentioned at the seder. So which is it? How many cups should we drink? The medieval commentators could not resolve it, so the fifth cup remains a question mark - filled but not drunk; it awaits the arrival of Elijah the prophet, who will announce the coming of the Messiah and resolve all outstanding halachic disputes. Hence, the "cup of Elijah."
The question arises, why wasn't it obvious from the outset that there are five terms of redemption in the Exodus text, and five cups of wine? Why is this a dispute? Perhaps the answer is in the above passage from the book of Joshua. The 40 years in the desert were, remember, a punishment for the negative report of the spies and the people's panicked response (Numbers 14). And yet, they had their advantages: In the desert we were provided with the miraculous manna so we didn't have to work for a living. Moreover, many of the legal passages of the Torah begin with the words "When you come into the land…" (for example: Leviticus 23:10, 25:2…); implying that until we entered the land, these laws would not be applicable. In other words, there is something about the desert years that seems more like a honeymoon than an exile. Later, the prophet Jeremiah confirms this feeling when he has God say: "I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride - how you followed Me in the wilderness…" (Jeremiah 2:2)
Perhaps the transition from the desert to the promised land was not an occasion for unalloyed jubilation. Perhaps there were Israelites who quickly became nostalgic for the good old days of the desert, with daily manna and a book of laws that stayed in the saddlebag. Entering the land meant economic responsibility, and the obligation to build a society - a state? - that would operate according to the Torah. It meant having to deal with strangers, with economic inequality, with crime and punishment, with taxes, with real estate, with the environment, with all the nitty-gritty details of being "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation."
Now here we are, having re-entered the promised land, and it's déjà vu all over again. When you are powerless, you are always the victim and someone else is always responsible. But now we have a state, and power, and hard choices about the demands of justice - and mercy - that are incumbent on a state that claims to be Jewish. Those choices engender strident and sometimes bitter political debate. Powerlessness has its attractions - just as the desert is quiet and beautiful. Without those hard choices, however, freedom is meaningless. I'm for drinking that fifth cup.