This year, Pesach begins on the evening of 19th April with the Seder. The centrepiece of the Seder is the telling of the tale of the Exodus related in the Haggadah that features several ‘fours’: four questions asked by the youngest child, four types of children, and of course, four cups of wine.
Traditionally, the four cups are related to the four promises of redemption set out majestically near the beginning of parashat Va-eira in the context of the concluding part of Moses’ encounter with the Eternal at the burning bush. We read (Exodus 6:6-7a): ‘Say to the Israelites: I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (first promise), and I will deliver you from their bondage (second), and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements (third), and I will take you to be my people and I will be your God’ (fourth).
The Eternal is the hero of the Haggadah, where we find no mention of the three sibling human leaders of the Exodus: Miriam, Aaron and Moses. But the Torah makes it clear that the liberation of the slaves involved a crucial human component.
First, at the beginning of the Exodus story, the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, defied Pharaoh’s genocidal decree against the new-born baby boys of the Hebrews, and saved their lives (Sh’mot, Ex. 1:15-21).
Next, a mother and sister – unnamed in the story – saved the life of one particular baby by making a water-proof basket and placing it in the reeds of the river. More than this, when Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket and the baby, the baby’s sister arranged with her that the baby’s mother would be his wet-nurse. The baby was adopted by the Princess, who named him Moses (Ex. 2:1-10). The sister, of course, was Miriam.
The succession of Divine plagues did their work, but significantly, the Israelites learnt that to avoid the final plague, the death of the firstborn, they had to daub the door-posts and lintel of their houses with the blood of a lamb, so that the Eternal would ‘pass over’ them (Bo, Ex. 1-13). Hence the festival is called Pesach, ‘Passover’.
By daubing the blood, the slaves demonstrated their readiness for liberation. Finally, they made a dash for liberation so swift there was no time for their dough to rise (Ex. 12:37-39) – which is the story behind the defining ritual of the festival: the eating of matzah, unleavened bread.
So: Four human acts of redemption. This year, as we raise our glasses to drink the four cups, let us dedicate each one in turn to remembrance of the human courage that contributed to our ancestors’ deliverance.
Chag Samei’ach! Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah