“Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. 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, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal, 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 the Eternal.” (Exodus 6:6–8)
This passage from this week’s Torah portion is cited in the Passover Haggadah as each of the four cups of wine is tasted and as the fifth cup remains untasted.
Va-eira is the second parashah in the Book of Exodus. The book begins with Moses and the Children of Israel in despair. In the previous parashah, Moses and Aaron obey God’s instructions to approach Pharaoh and demand, “Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1). Pharaoh responds by increasing the workload of the Israelite slaves, who then berate Moses and Aaron for their intervention, “May the Eternal look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us” (Exodus 5:21). Moses cannot bear to witness the terrible suffering of his people, suffering that is a direct result of his appeal to Pharaoh. He is assailed by doubts about his mission and laments to God, “O my lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?” (Exodus 5:22)
With the words of Exodus 6:6–8 quoted above, God reassures Moses that the groans of the Israelites in bondage have been heard and that the covenant with their ancestors will be kept.
From this passage the Sages derive the tradition of drinking four cups of wine at the Passover seder that correspond to four verbs of divine action promised to Moses: “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 I will take you to be My people” (Exodus 6:6–7).
I will free and I will deliver and I will redeem and I will take.
A minority view held that a fifth cup should be drunk corresponding to “I will bring you into the land . . . and I will give it to you for a possession” (Exodus 6:8). Hence we have the custom of leaving a fifth cup of wine untasted on the table.
We have accounted for six of the seven actions God specifies in this message to Moses. All six are attributed to God. The seventh action, however, is to be performed by the Children of Israel: “And you shall know that I, the Eternal, am your God” (Exodus 6:7). Why does this promise of the people’s behavior appear in the midst of promises of divine behavior? The inclusion seems to interrupt the details of what God will do.
Rabbi Chayim ben Moses Attar raises this question in his commentary, Or Hachayim: “How does the consequence ‘And you shall know that I am Adonai your God’ come to be lumped together with the promises of salvation?” Attar goes on to point out that the understanding of the people should logically come at the end of the list, when all of God’s promises had been fulfilled. He answers his own question by asserting, “You shall know that I am your God” is a precondition for the fulfillment of “I will bring you and I will give you.”
Here in three sentences with seven verbs, we have a summary of the great story of the Jewish people. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. God saved us with a mighty hand and led us through the wilderness to the Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. Each year, these words form the core of our Passover celebrations. We remember God’s actions with our cups of wine at the seder. We debate whether we should drink four cups or five. Rarely, however, do we pay much attention to that fifth verb—and you shall know—the action that we must take in order for the story to reach a successful completion.
As is so often the case, the Torah reflects a worldview that is alien to many of us. God overwhelms the Egyptians. Our ancestors are freed from slavery and saved from the pursuing armies by miraculous signs and portents of divine origin. At the same time, the Torah teaches us a lesson clearly applicable in our own lives. While we pray and wait for others to do a job—clean up the environment, provide job opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed, fix our broken health care delivery system, restore trust in our political system, convince the world that the United States should be respected as a valued partner in their pursuit of a better life for their citizens . . . add your favorites to the list—the piece that is missing is our personal role in addressing these problems. If we are ever to make it to the “Promised Land” of solutions instead of complaints, there will always be a piece of the puzzle that only we can put in place. Perhaps, if we add a sixth cup at the seder table, we will remember to ask ourselves, “Which pieces do I hold in my hands?”
BY THE WAY
It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it. (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16)
Why do you think the Torah places the action required of the Israelites after the first four actions to be taken by God?
Why are there cups of wine (four or five) on the seder table that are dedicated to God’s actions and none that are dedicated to the actions of the Israelites?
Many of us sing Rabbi Tarfon’s words with fervor in a setting from Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Danny Freelander. While we like the music, do we pay attention to the words?
Take a few moments at an upcoming seder to discuss this passage and focus on those frequently over looked words, “And you shall know. . . .”
Richard Klein is the rabbi at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire.
BY THE WAY
Va-eira, Exodus 6:2–9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 420–448; Revised Edition, pp. 379–400 <align="center">
Haftarah, Ezekiel 28:25–29:21