The Cup of Elijah

VA'ERA EXODUS 6:2 - 9:35
13 JANUARY 2018 /  26 TEVET 5778

Parsha Summary

Declaring, “I am Adonai,” God reveals God’s self to Moses. God promises to take the Children of Israel out from Egypt and deliver them from enslavement with the four expressions of redemption: “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, 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.” (6:6-6:8) 

Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of God, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. Aaron’s staff turns into a snake and swallows the magic sticks of the Egyptian sorcerers. God sends a series of plagues upon the Egyptians.

The waters of the Nile turn to blood; swarms of frogs overrun the land; lice infest all men and beasts. Hordes of wild animals invade the cities; a pestilence kills the domestic animals; painful boils afflict the Egyptians. For the seventh plague, fire and ice combine to descend from the skies as a devastating hail. Still, “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he would not let the children of Israel go, as God had said to Moses.”

Bonus Text

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” 2 Kings 2:11

The 15th of Nissan will arrive on the night of Friday March 30, 2018. 

That is, it will arrive in 77 days.

That is in two months, two weeks, and four days.

When I opened the chumash and saw the words of Va’era, “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you . . . . I will take you to be My people, I will be your God . . .” and so on, I almost closed it right back up again so I could start getting my house ready for Passover

One of my favorite memories of Passover happened around 1998. I was in New Mexico, Mom and I were hosting, and our young friend Rex was at our table. Rex was about four – maybe five. It was his first seder. When it came time to open the door for Elijah, we poured his cup of wine and asked Rex to help out. He proudly pushed back from the table and went to the door. With both hands, he pulled it open. Of course, I didn’t really expect Elijah to be there, so I shifted to turn back to our Haggadah. Not Rex. Leaving the door standing wide, he marched outside. Hands on his hips he looked up the street and down.

“See anyone, Rex?” My mom called to him.
“Not yet!” He responded.
We waited. Rex didn’t move.
“Rex?” His mom leaned toward the door. “Come back in, Rex.”
“I can’t, Mom! I’m welcoming Elijah!”
“It’s okay, Rex,” I assured him. “We can invite him again next year.”
Rex, his attention focused on the street, held up an arm.
“Let’s give him another minute,” he wisely suggested. “Maybe he got held up somewhere.” 

A few years later, I had moved to Minnesota and was learning from Rabbi Yosi Gordon when he shared an Elijah story about one of his teachers. Unsurprisingly, this rabbi of Yosi’s had shelves of books – the kind of shelves that typically have glass panels, but these didn’t. The students asked their teacher why the panels had been removed. As I remember, Yosi said his teacher explained, “When Elijah comes to tell us to get ready for the messiah I don’t want anything to come between myself and these texts.” You see, according to tradition, the first thing Elijah will do after he returns to proclaim the coming of the messianic age is to resolve all of the questions of Jewish law that have confounded the rabbis. 

I thought back to Rex.

We adults may not have actually expected Elijah to show up, but we had poured him a brimming cup of wine. It was absolutely reasonable for Rex to ask us to be patient and give the prophet enough time to arrive to drink it. 

For some of us, the return of Elijah, the herald of the Messianic Era, is a folk story. For others, for Yosi’s teacher, and for Rex, that promise is as real as the wine in the goblet. But what do these verses in this parsha that we recite at Passover have to do with Elijah?

Let’s listen to them again.

God promises to: 

1) take out the Children of Israel from Egypt, 
2) deliver them from their enslavement, 
3) redeem them, and
4) take them as God’s own chosen people at Mount Sinai. (6:6 – 6:8)

The Mishneh in Pesachim speaks of four cups of wine. These are the basic requirements of the seder. According to the Jerusalem Talmud 68b, they represent the four stages of redemption at the beginning of our sedra – another word for parsha or Torah portion. However, in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 188a there is a strange statement:

The fifth cup: over this, one completes Hallel and says Hallel Hagadol (Psalm 136, ‘Gives thanks to the Lord, God’s love endures for ever’). These are the words of Rabbi Tarfon.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, Rashi is puzzled by these words. 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, an unobligatory positive religious deed.

Two questions arise on the views of Rambam and Ravad. The first is: why does the Mishnah - Judaism's primary book of legal theory - speak about four cups if there are in fact five? Simple: The first four are obligatory. The second: When God speaks to Moses, doesn’t God uses four expressions of deliverance, not five? To respond we turn back to the verse at the beginning of Va’era, and discover the 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 Adonai.” (6:8)

I will bring you. . . 

Have we been brought . . . or not?
And there: The debate over the fifth cup. 

In the 2nd century, Jews could celebrate 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. An unresolved dispute. There is an Aramaic word for this: teku. It may derive from tekum meaning “it will stand undecided.” (I’ve learned this week it is also used in Israel when a soccer match ends in a tie.) In essence, it means that this debate will remain a question.
All well and good for them, but what’s a seder host to do?

Well, we add a fifth. We honor Rambam and Ravad and pour it. We honor Rashi and do not drink it. 

We still haven’t answered our question about Elijah, though. Why is he invited to drink this cup?

A folk etymology has it that teku is an acronym for "Tishbi yetaretz kushiot v-abayot - the Tishbite (Elijah) will answer all unresolved questions." As Rabbi Yosi’s teacher taught, the first thing Elijah will do after he returns to proclaim the coming of the messianic age is to resolve all those questions of Jewish law that confounded the rabbis including this question of 4 or 5. 

And there we have it: The Cup of Elijah.

Maybe it seems a little obsessive? This worrying over how many cups we are obligated to drink at our seders. 

On the other hand, as a people we are rife with internal conflicts. Our beloved Israel struggles to effect her promise. We are in the land, but do not always live up to her potential. I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of unresolved questions! 

Maybe this year I will take a page from Rex’s Haggadah, pour the fifth cup first, and lead the whole seder with the door wide open.