How can we better understand the lessons of Passover in the context of our experience as Jews in the 21st century? To do this, Rabbi Irwin Kula uses the four cups of wine to offer insights into the Exodus story and help us grasp our identity and obligations in this modern age. Your Passover seder may never be the same after reading this inspiring and thoughtful commentary.
Cup One: The Slaves
In drinking this cup, let us identify with the slaves, and remember how bitter it once was for us. In experiencing the stark contrast between our ancestors’ slavery and our own freedom, we should feel grateful for what we have and feel empathy for those in the world who are still suffering. Through our re-experiencing of the Exodus, may we emerge from “Exodus-time” filled not only with hope for our ultimate redemption, but with a sense of indebtedness for the freedom we already enjoy. May we strive to live in ways that honor the gift of our freedom by using that freedom to liberate those who are not yet free. In the words of the Torah, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt, and therefore treat the powerless accordingly.”
Cup Two: Inward Reflection
In drinking this cup, let us remember that the Exodus has an inward dimension, that it maps an exodus from psychological slavery to psychological freedom. By opening ourselves to this dimension of the story, we meet the internal Pharaohs that imprison us, the internal demons that enslave us, that keep us from reaching our potential and from being free to trust and love fully. We become mindful of the ingrained patterns of thought and behavior that predetermine so many of our choices and keep us from a deeper awareness of the genuine freedom we have, and from responsibility for the myriad of choices we make every day. In this experience, we ask ourselves who are the taskmasters of our psyches that inhibit us and keep us from feeling the infinite dignity and value that is our right as human beings. Experiencing the Exodus in this way, we locate within ourselves the “staff” that is the source of the strength that helps us to overcome our inner obstacles and become truly free. In drinking this cup, we deepen the politically activist understanding of the Exodus to encompass the inner spiritual growth that is necessary if we are to become effective agents of change.
Cup Three: Joseph
In drinking this cup, let us identify with Joseph, whose presence in the Exodus drama goes back to the beginning of the story. Joseph is the first Israelite to go down to Egypt. It is because of his high position there that the entire family will eventually go down to Egypt as well. The Torah describes Joseph as saving the Egyptians by giving them food during the seven-year famine. But the Torah also says (in Genesis 47:19,25) that in the very process of supplying the Egyptians with food, Joseph made the Egyptians into avadim l’Pharaoh, into slaves to Pharaoh. In fact, the first time the phrase “slaves to Pharaoh” is used, it is not to describe the Israelites, but rather to describe the Egyptians who have been enslaved to Pharaoh by Joseph! This makes the subsequent enslavement of the Israelites, when a new Pharaoh arises, far more complex. Rather than simply ascribing to the new Pharaoh a blind hatred of the Israelites and ascribing complicity to the Egyptians, by identifying with Joseph we are led to realize that we were the first enslavers. Rather than seeing ourselves as the wholly innocent victims of some “other’s” hatred, we realize, in a painful moment of awareness, that, “measure for measure,” we got what we gave. This is a radical reversal of the typical manner in which we Jews interpret our history as being a story about ourselves as victims with all the world against us.
By becoming Joseph, we can identify with Joseph’s rise to power in the Diaspora and enjoy the influence we have attained at the highest levels of society. But at the same time, we are led to ask whether like Joseph — despite the best of intentions — we have exercised our power and influence to the detriment of other people. Becoming Joseph, we are attentive to the seductive aspect of power and influence. We become aware of how, to our credit, we have learned to successfully negotiate and navigate the political and economic waters of our American society. But we also understand that we must be attentive to the social and human costs of a political and economic system that has been the source of injustice even as it has benefited us in many ways. To our credit, we have become experts at tzedakah as a means of redressing societies’ ills, and we know well the teaching that tzedakah is not charity. But perhaps by “becoming” Joseph, we will see beyond him and grasp that giving tzedakah cannot always compensate for a lack of social justice.
Cup Four: Moses
In drinking this cup, let us identify with Moses who, having grown up in the court of Pharaoh — secure, comfortable, affluent, and powerful, recognized the responsibility to change the world that comes with the gifts of power, privilege and affluence. Today, our political and economic condition is much more like Moses’ than that of the enslaved children of Israel. Like Moses, we too have the choice of whether or not to risk the comfort and security that we enjoy in order to fight for the justice that is denied to those who are oppressed. Moses, though raised in radically different circumstances than the Israelites, nevertheless saw himself as their kinsman. In drinking this cup, and in becoming Moses at this moment, we feel the magnitude of the challenge that Moses poses to all of us who live in gated communities, who are set apart from our fellow human beings who suffer deprivation, at least in part, on account of the very political and economic structures of our society that have enabled our own personal success.
With the eyes of Moses, we look out upon the landscape that is our world and feel the summons to responsibility that singles out each of us because of our very power and privilege. What would Moses feel and do (and urge us to do) in an America in which close to 40 million people, and 20 percent of all children, live in poverty? What would Moses feel and do in an America in which prisons hold half as many people as live in public housing? What would Moses feel and do in an America in which more than 30 million children read below grade level, and are, in effect, economically enslaved and consigned to the periphery of the new economy?
In drinking this cup, we are inspired by the power that enabled Moses – and might enable us – to overcome the temptation that would lead us to turn away from seemingly intractable social problems and to find fulfillment in the personal and social enjoyments that our affluence makes possible. May that which gave Moses the strength and courage to risk his wealth and security to fight for justice give us the strength and courage to do the same. Quieting down our inner chatter, we seek to intuit the voice that Moses must have heard deep within himself, the voice that made him aware that the burning oppression that people feel does not have to consume them, and that we each have the power to change the world. Brought face to face with our capacity to be like Moses, we must ask ourselves whether we have pursued justice with all the means at our disposal.
The Exodus is the chief orienting experience in Jewish history; and the seder is the practice that invites us into that experience. Our challenge in this era, when we are no longer slaves, is not to go through the seder in a perfunctory way — pretending we are victims in the age old Jewish story — nor is it to identify with the oppressed in a sentimental way that allows us to feel the slaves’ pain, but leaves us fundamentally unchanged. Rather, our challenge is to take up the seder’s invitation to become those characters in the story that stretch us, that provide us with insight into who we really are and into our purpose in this new era in Jewish history. We need to take advantage of the seder’s invitation and, by transforming ourselves into the story’s characters, learn how best to become a people that acts in the world in a manner that can bring the Exodus to all peoples.
Rabbi Irwin Kula is a media commentator and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.”