On the nights of the seders, we drink four cups of wine to symbolize the four verbs employed by the Torah (Exodus 6:6-8) to express the manifestations of G-d’s redemption of the Israelites.
These four cups correspond to the four sections of the seder. Each section represents a part of our seder night journey, and the symbolism of each section is understood and appreciated.
But there is a fifth cup of wine on the seder table for which we do not recite a blessing, and this fifth cup represents a fifth verb found in the verses mentioned above: V’hay-vay-ti — “and I will bring you to the land which I have promised you.”
As the late Rabbi Dov Kanotopsky notes in a recently published collection of his sermons from the middle of the 20th century: “The fifth cup is of a somewhat dubious nature — we simply fill the cup and then we let it sit on the table and wait for the prophet Elijah to come and do something about it! And how long are we going to wait?”
Forty years after his passing, Rabbi Kanotopsky is right. His interpretation 70 years ago, in the shadows of the Holocaust and before the state of Israel, was is still on target today. We cannot wait.
We cannot wait to be G-d’s true partner in bringing tikkun (repair and return to completeness) to our olam (world).
We cannot wait to fight oppression wherever it manifests itself.
We cannot wait to stand up to our enemies Iran, Islamic State, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.
We cannot wait to speak against the anti-Semites, the nations and individuals who seek to blame the Jews and Israel for the problems of the world.
Thanks to the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, we do not have to wait to put a stop to the endless anti-Israel resolutions and attacks on Israel at the United Nations. Thank you, Ambassador Nikki Haley, for your amazing strength and forceful language at the United Nations.
The Hasidic Rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz used to invite all the participants of his seder to pour wine from their cups into the cup of Elijah. Rabbi Horowitz understood that for redemption to come, for the divine force of redemption to be realized, we must take the first step to let G-d know we are ready for redemption.
When the Israelites stood at the Sea of Reeds as they prepared to begin their journey toward the land of Israel, they saw the sea before them and the Egyptians behind them. The people cried out in anguish, “Moses, were there no cemeteries in Egypt, that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”
Moses prayed to G-d. G-d was not happy. G-d scolded Moses: “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!”
Our rabbinic commentaries add a story here. One brave Jew was ready to jump into the water. Nachshon took a leap of faith, and the sea split.
Nachshon showed G-d that the people were ready to be redeemed from Egypt and inherit the land G-d promised to the people. In modern times, we have seen this narrative played out dramatically:
- In 1967, the people of Israel, under siege and surrounded, launched a pre-emptive strike to save the state.
- In 1976, Gen. Daniel Elazar and Capt. Yoni Netanyahu knew that the only way to save the Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, was to attempt a daring rescue.
- In Yemen in 1949 and Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s, we knew that the way to save whole Jewish communities was to go in and scoop them out.
- In 1981, Israel knew that the only way to confront the possibility of a nuclear Iraq was for the air force to destroy the nuclear facility.
Throughout our history, we have prayed for Elijah to bring peace and redemption. When we sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” at the seder, we close our eyes and pray for a few minutes of peace and wholeness. But we also know that praying is not enough.
We can keep singing, but we know that we also must act.
We can sit and watch a cup that no one drinks, and the level of liquid doesn’t change, or we can do what Rabbi Horowitz did: Invite everyone to participate by adding wine and show G-d that we are ready for redemption.
So this year, when we sing “Eliyahu HaNavi,” let us hold the fifth cup, Elijah’s cup, and sing with all our hearts for peace, redemption and completeness, but let us also show G-d that we are ready to say hineni, that we are ready when situations present themselves and that we know we cannot wait anymore.
It is time for us to play a role in the spiritual and physical redemption of our people.
Melissa and I wish all our Atlanta friends a joyous and meaningful Passover. Hag sameach.
Rabbi Paul David Kerbel served as the associate rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb from 2003 to 2015. He now serves as the associate rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, Long Island, N.Y. He is a member of the Global Jewish Peoplehood Committee of UJA Federation New York and chair of the Rabbinic Campaign of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.