As a child, I used to be fascinated by the cup of Elijah at the seder table. Would the prophet come when we opened the door after the meal? Would he be visible or invisible? Did the level of the wine gone down, however imperceptibly? The idea of the prophet who did not die, but went to heaven in a chariot of fire (II Kings 2: 11), and who would one day return to bring the good news of redemption was intensely dramatic. Only later did I discover the real significance of Elijah's cup, and found, as so often, that the truth is no less moving than the stories we learned as children.
The Mishneh in Pesachim speaks of four cups of wine. These are the basic requirements of the seder, and the community must ensure that even the poorest person has sufficient wine to drink these cups. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, they represent the four stages of redemption at the beginning of our sedra. G-d assures Moses that despite the fact that his intervention with Pharaoh has initially made things worse, liberation will indeed come:
"Therefore, say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD , and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your G-d.
In the Babylonian Talmud, however, there is a strange statement:
The fifth cup: over this one completes Hallel and says Hallel Hagadol (Psalm 136, 'Gives thanks to the Lord, His love endures for ever'). These are the words of Rabbi Tarfon.
Rashi is puzzled by these words. Thus far, the discussion has been about four cups, not five. He is therefore driven to the conclusion that the text is a scribal error. It should say, 'the fourth cup.'
Rambam, however, accepts the text as it stands. After drinking the four cups and completing Hallel, he writes:
One may pour a fifth cup and say over it Hallel Hagadol . . . This cup is not obligatory, unlike the four cups.
Ravad (R. Avraham ibn Daud), contemporary of Rambam, takes a slightly different view. For him it is a mitzvah to drink a fifth cup. There is a difference between mitzvah and chovah. The latter is an obligation, the former an act which, though not obligatory, constitutes a positive religious deed.
Two questions arise on the views of Rambam and Ravad. The first is: why does the Mishnah speak about four cups if there are in fact five? To this the answer is straightforward: The four cups are obligatory, unlike the fifth. That is why the community must provide the poor with the means of fulfilling their obligation, but they do not have to make provision for the fifth cup, which according to Rambam is optional, and according to Ravad is desirable but not absolutely necessary.
The second question seems stronger. When G-d speaks to Moses, He uses four expressions of deliverance, not five. Hence, the four cups. Asking this question, however, takes us back to the text at the beginning of our sedra. It is then that we discover, to our surprise, that there is in fact a fifth expression of deliverance:
"And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord."
The drama of the fifth cup now becomes apparent. Pesach represents the start of the great journey of Jewish history, from slavery to freedom, Egypt to the promised land. What then became of it after the destruction of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the Hadrianic persecutions and the long, tragic series of events that led to the greatest exile of Jewish history? Could Jews celebrate freedom under such circumstances?
The pathos of this question is evident in the opening words of the seder: 'This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.' The very festival that spoke of liberty gained became - for almost 2,000 years - a poignant reminder of what the Jewish people had lost: freedom, a land, a home. A new phrase was born: next year. 'This year we are slaves; next year we will be free. This year we are here; next year in Israel.' The past became the future. Memory was transfigured into hope. It is not too much to call the Jewish people 'the people of hope'. What had happened once would happen again. As the prophets of exile - Jeremiah and Ezekiel - said: there would be a second exodus. The loss was only temporary. The Divine promise was for ever.
It was in this context that the debate over the fifth cup arose. Jews could speak about the four preliminary stages of redemption - but could they celebrate the fifth: 'I will bring you to the land'? That is the debate between Rashi, Rambam and Ravad. Rashi says one should not drink a fifth cup; Rambam says one may; Ravad says one should.
Hence the extra cup at the seder table. Out of respect for Rambam and Ravad, we pour it. Out of respect for Rashi, we do not drink it. According to the sages, unresolved halakhic disputes will one day be resolved by Elijah (the word Teyku, 'Let it stand [undecided],' refers to Elijah: 'The Tishbite [Elijah] will come and answer questions and problems'). Hence the fifth cup became known as 'the cup of Elijah'.
In our times, the Jewish people has returned to the land. According to one sage (the late Rabbi Menahem Kasher), we should now drink the fifth cup. Be that as it may, it is no less moving to think back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries - the age of Rashi, Rambam and Ravad - and know that in the darkest night of exile, the only question was: how far, in the present, do we celebrate hope for the future? Four fifths? Or all five? The promise G-d gave Moses at the beginning of our sedra spoke not just to that time, but to all time. Pesach kept hope alive. Hope kept the Jewish people alive.
After Justification We Need Justice
Jewish Chronicle - 16th January 2009
These past two weeks have been for me, and I imagine for most of us, among the most painful of our lives. We know what Israel is doing and why it is doing it. But the cost in human suffering has been immense. I believe we have all felt it. Israelis have felt it. This was not what any of us wanted or hoped for. We weep that it has come to this.
Israel had to do what it did. The people of Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon have for years been living a nightmare.
The missile attacks have now extended to Beersheva. Yet further widening has been threatened by Hamas, bringing ever large areas of Israel into the danger zone. Some 8000 missiles have been fired across the border, hitting schools and kindergartens, hospitals and community centres. Many have died, many more have been injured, and there are children in Sderot who have grown up knowing their only place of safety is a bomb shelter.
No people can live like that, and the first duty of any state is to protect the lives of its citizens. Israel had to act, and was justified in acting. That has been recognised by President-elect Barack Obama, by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and every other political leader with integrity. They know full well that had they been in the position of Israel's leadership they would have been forced to do the same.
But to know that a course of action is necessary does not mean that you take any satisfaction from it. That is something Judaism has acknowledged for thousands of years.
The Torah tells us that when Jacob was about to meet his brother Esau after an estrangement lasting 22 years, 'Jacob was very afraid and distressed.' Why the apparent repetition? Our sages say, 'Jacob was very afraid, lest he be killed. He was distressed, lest he be forced to kill.' Jacob's fear was physical. He thought he might die. His distress was moral. He thought that to save his life he might have to kill his brother.
The commentators ask the obvious question. If Jacob was forced to kill in self-defence, why should he feel distress? He would have been doing the right and justified thing. Not only in Jewish law, but in virtually every other legal system, there is a right to self-defence. Without it, there would be no right to life. So why the distress?
The answer is obvious. There are situations – the technical name for them is dilemmas – in which the choice is between one invidious option and another. Jean-Paul Sartre gave the example of a Frenchman during the Second World War, torn between looking after his elderly and sick mother and joining the resistance. Whichever way he chose, he would feel guilty. If he joined the resistance, he would be abandoning his mother. If he stayed with his mother, he would be abandoning his country.
There are some choices so painful that, whichever way you choose, if you are moral, you feel distress. That is what we and the vast majority of Israelis feel now.
By any constructive political logic, Hamas' action serves no aim that might benefit the people of Gaza. Whatever they might legitimately want was given to them by the Israelis in 2005. Israel withdrew. It was a painful act, and one that caused deep divisions, as well as personal suffering, within Israel itself.
In effect, Israel said to the Palestinians of Gaza, the land is yours. The farms, the buildings, the factories our people built – they are all yours. If you need aid, we will give it or facilitate it. We hereby give you everything. That was when the terror should have stopped. Instead, that is when a new wave of terror began.
Israel left Lebanon. That is when Hizbollah started stockpiling and firing Katyushas. Israel spent seven years in a peace process with the Palestinians. The Palestinians responded by an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings. Israel withdrew from Gaza. Hamas responded with missiles. When every withdrawal, every concession, every peace initiative, is seen as an act of weakness, a capitulation to terror and an invitation to yet more terror, then peacemaking is not merely rejected. It is checkmated.
The paradox is that, as I said at Trafalgar Square, Israel's friends and its opponents want the same things. They want Palestinian children to grow up with hope. So do we. They want Palestinians to be able to live in dignity. So do we. They want Palestinian parents to have work, income, and a life for their families. So do we. So why must we clash? Why are Israel and the Palestinians fighting?
There must come a time, may it be sooner rather than later, when the interests of human beings take precedence over pride and prejudice; when people learn that hatred destroys the hater, not just the hated; when both sides realise that they are both there to stay, and that they must learn to live together, not die together.
The words that have resonated with me, these past days, go back to the dawn of Jewish history, and to the first recorded conflict in the land. In Bereishit chapter 13 we read of the argument between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot. Their flocks and herds were large. They were unable to graze together.
At that point Abraham turned to Lot and said: "Let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let's part company. If you go to the left, I'll go to the right; if you go to the right, I'll go to the left." They recognized the conflict and they resolved it.
I believe the Palestinians have a right to a state. I believe they have a right to dignity. I believe their children have a right to a future. And I believe that all of these things are being endangered, frustrated and delayed by the acts of Hamas, and by those who give it arms, and by those who give it their support.
The time has come in Britain for the supporters of Israel and the supporters of the Palestinians to work together, to bring aid to the injured on both sides, comfort to the bereaved of both sides, and passionate commitment to the peaceful coexistence of both sides.
These past three weeks, we have all shed tears. Now let us work together for a future that is not yet another replay of the past. Let us hear the cries and fears of both sides and let us work together for a future without tears.