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Drink to Eternity

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Redemption doesn’t simply mean being let out of jail

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

When you’ve been tortured and oppressed for so long, all you want is a respite. But Redemption doesn’t simply mean being let out of jail

 

On Pesach night we will raise four cups of wine in a toast to the freedom bestowed upon us more than three thousand years ago. As we commemorate that redemption, we will deepen and renew our consciousness of the meaning embodied in each cup of red wine we drink during the Seder.

For these four cups represent four levels of the Jewish concept of cheirus, corresponding to four expressions used in Hashem’s promise of the imminent redemption from galus Mitzrayim. These expressions are:

V’hotzeisi: I will take you out from the suffering of Egypt.

V’hitzalti: I will rescue you from their labor.

V’ga’alti: I will redeem you, with an outstretched arm and with great acts of justice.

V’lakachti: I will take you to be My people (Shemos 6:6-8).

The last pasuk ends with the culminating phrase: “And I will be a G-d to you.”

When we lift the first cup on Seder night, we imbue our consciousness with the level of freedom expressed in the words, “I will take you out from the suffering of Egypt.” This statement focuses not on the hard labor itself, but on the suffering inherent in being a slave, which stems chiefly from the fact that the slave has been deprived of all rights, he is totally without status in the eyes of his subjugators. No Geneva Convention laws apply to him, like those conferring some protection on prisoners of war today. Back then, a person’s worth depended entirely on how much work could be  squeezed out of them. But most of all, Bnei Yisrael suffered because after long years of slavery, their self-image had deteriorated. Even in their own eyes, they had no worth as human beings.

Only Divinely given freedom can bring liberation from this aspect of slavery. The redemption lifted them up, stood them on their feet once more as human beings. It restored their self-respect. They didn’t find a breach in the wall and escape to the wilderness. They were explicitly redeemed, which means that Someone redeemed them. Someone wanted them and wished to make something of them, and that Someone of course, was HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This knowledge alone radically changed their self-perception. Once redeemed, they never suffered that loss of basic human dignity again, despite the two thousand years of our present galus, which has not yet ended. Ever since then, no matter where the Jewish People have wandered in their exile and no matter what was inflicted on them, they have not tasted that sense of utter worthlessness that was their lot in Mitzrayim. Throughout the persecution and oppression, the humiliation and hard labor, and the torture in the dungeons of the Inquisition and the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, they remained essentially redeemed inwardly. They became bnei chorin at the innermost level, and nothing could deprive them of that.

In honor of this redemption, we drink the first cup.

 

WHEN WE MAKE the brachah over the second cup, we focus on being rescued from the grueling labor itself, alluded to in the words, “And I will rescue you from their labor.”

A healthy work ethic is a positive thing. But the Egyptians used labor to realize their philosophy of life, a totem pole philosophy of upper and lower classes, a society where the forced labor by “inferior” human beings was anchored in the law of the land and its organizational structure. The Egyptians believed all men were not created equal, and that the privileged sector had a right to tyrannize those beneath them and determine their fate.

In that great house of slavery called Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael were the most wretched and lowly of slaves. They were even at the mercy of other slaves who occupied a higher spot on the totem pole and derived a minimal sense of status by abusing them.

This was the Egyptian hierarchy and the essence of its outlook on human rights. It was master and slave, fuehrer and unterfuehrer.

Three thousand three hundred and thirty-one years ago on this night, the concept of adam, the human being, was redeemed in Egypt. HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s redemption abolished once and for all the artificial divisions between human beings that permitted one person to dominate another. This was G-d’s revolution, proclaiming for the first time in the pagan world that all men are born equal and all were created in the image of G-d (this has no bearing on the Jewish idea of “You have chosen us”). From this redemption all the great liberators in the world have drawn their strength of spirit, from Spartacus to Abraham Lincoln. For ever since then, the call of equality and freedom has sounded from one end of the world to the other. And although not all the fortresses of tyranny have fallen yet, still, the song of redemption from Egypt cannot be stopped.

In its honor, we pour out the second cup of wine and recite a blessing of redemption.

 

THE THIRD CUP corresponds to the pasuk, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”  The word ga’al, to redeem, has a connotation of acquiring ownership, transferring something from one domain to another. This cup teaches us about the nature of Jewish freedom. It is dedicated to the Redeemer Himself. It proclaims that the geulah was not an act in which people took their fate into their own hands and cast their master’s yoke off their shoulders. By drinking the third cup, we imbue the redemption from Egypt with a metaphysical dimension. We declare that we were redeemed, and not that we redeemed ourselves. HaKadosh Baruch Hu revealed His mighty arm and redeemed us, and thus this redemption is not on the same plane as physical or political liberation, such as release from imprisonment or from the yoke of colonialism.

Through this redemption we were transferred into the ownership of that same Creator Who redeemed us. As Moshe Rabbeinu exhorted Pharaoh in Hashem’s Name: “Release My people, and they will serve Me.”  We were not simply released from our shackles and set free; rather, we entered into a new kind of servitude, a servitude that is liberating on the spiritual plane.

 

THE FOURTH CUP IS DEDICATED to the fact that HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose Bnei Yisrael: “And I will take you to be My people.” This level of redemption laid the foundation for the Jewish People’s nationhood. It went far beyond mere liberation from oppression. It was this redemption that shaped the nation, that molded its image. We now became the nation that was promised to Avraham Avinu at the Bris bein Habesarim, a people that was handpicked for this redemption, a people that would bear the imprint of these enormous events on its soul forever. Those events would turn that people into a unique nation, a people that would carry the tidings of the redemption from Egypt like a torch of freedom to the entire world, until the end of history.

When we drink the fourth cup, we proclaim to our Redeemer, and to the world, that we are still faithful to those tidings of freedom, and that we will forever drink the wine of eternity.

Chag samei’ach v’kasher to our readers and to the entire Jewish People.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 757)

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