Four and a Half Cups1
I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt. I will rescue you from their service. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will teake you to Me for a nation, and I shall be a G-d to you.
We hardly give a moment’s thought to the reason for the wine at the Seder. We’ve internalized the argument that the four expressions of redemption at the beginning of our parshah are memorialized through the four cups. The argument, however, is not particularly strong. The four varieties of redemption we experienced at the Exodus may call for four of something, but why wine? So many other items could have served the same function. We could eat four kinds of meat, or four vegetables, or even four different kinds of matzah.
Additionally, we must account for the mysterious fifth cup – the one over which the gemara tells us to recite Hallel, and yet whose very presence at the Seder table is considered halachically optional. If this cup belongs to Hallel, why should it not be mandatory?
Chazal wanted us to appreciate another dimension of our redemption – a factor so important that it explains why the four expressions of redemption were not just welcome manifestations of Hashem’s love for us, but integral parts of the process of redemption. The purpose of the Exodus was to bring the Bnei Yisrael to Sinai. But a nation of slaves, used to nothing more than toiling with bricks and mortar, cannot receive a Torah. Nor can it transition in an instant to the state of preparedness necessary to make them suitable candidates to live by its expectations. The four expressions of redemption trace the path of inner change that turned slaves into proper recipients of the Torah. Chazal underscored this change by using wine to remind us about the four expressions. Wine is a handy instrument of change. When people drink it, their appearance and conduct changes rapidly, and in different ways. It is the perfect substance with which to mark the transformation of the state of mind of a person or people.
In the first stage, Hashem took them out of the burdens of Egypt. In other words, He freed them from their harsh servile labor in making bricks. The first step they took in forming new identities and self-images came when they were released from this mind- and spirit-numbing occupation. This happened when the Egyptians were stricken with the fourth plague, arov.
They were still technically slaves, though. While no longer forced to labor as they had done before, they were still legally the property of others, and therefore seen as not quite as human as others. They were still seen as slaves in principle, fully obligated to do whatever their master demanded of them. Barad changed the equation. Paroh for the first time began to hold them in some regard, to begrudgingly give them some respect, even as he struggled to maintain his authority over them. This was the second stage, brought about by the second expression of redemption, in which Hashem “saved them” from their work” – in principle, as well as practically.
They won their complete freedom with makas bechoros, achieving the third stage in their reconstruction. Entering into a covenant with G-d at Sinai – “and I will take you to Me as a nation” – they arrived at the fourth stage, becoming what they were meant to become.
An aside: the Torah is not consistent in describing the first stage. If sometimes speaks of “a strong hand;” at other times, such as our pesukim, it speaks of “an outstretched arm.” Sometimes, it speaks of both. This is certainly not random.
The Mechilta comments upon a pasuk later on with two images. “‘Hashem saved Yisrael on that day from the hand of Egypt’ – like a person holding a bird in his grasp, who can instantly strangle it; like a person who dislodges a fetus from the innards of a cow.” By this they mean to point out that the Bnei Yisrael were endangered in multiple ways, requiring Hashem to show His ability and strategy on several planes.
The gemara tells us that our dispersion to far-flung regions of the globe benefits us. Those who wish to harm us never have all of us within range. Paroh, however, did. Hashem’s show of His “strong hand”would not keep His people out of danger. A stronger person intent on stealing a bird in the hand of a much weaker one will not prevail through his strength alone. When it becomes clear to the weaker person that he will be overpowered, he will simply strangle the bird in hand to prevent his adversary from benefiting from his aggression. Similarly, Paroh could have responded to Hashem’s display of strength by destroying the Bnei Yisrael quickly and efficiently.
To prevent that, HKBH reached out with “an outstretched arm.” He provided no respite for Paroh to strategize between makos, to plan a quick program of extermination. He did this through unrelenting pressure – an arm constantly poised to strike again and again. He picked off Paroh’s associates and advisors one by one, keeping him on the defensive and preoccupied with maintaining a functioning regime. Paroh had no time to implement a plan to counterstrike against the Bnei Yisrael. (The authors of the Haggadah explain the “outstretched hand” as “the sword.” They mean the process whereby Hashem kept assassinating key individuals between the plagues.)
Yet another factor prevented Hashem’s strength alone from accomplising the complete removal of the Jewish people from Egypt. Many Jews simply did not want to leave. They had become indispensible to their masters, bettered their positions, and even enriched themselves. Some refused to leave because they had no interest in accepting a Torah! Yet the Exodus, when it came to pass, was complete. No Jew stayed behind. Those who refused to leave left against their wills, by leaving earthly existence. The “strong hand” of G-d pursued them, killing them during the plague of darkness. (The authors of the Haggadah call this “strong hand” the dever, meaning a death-dealing plague visited upon recalcitrant Jews.) This strong hand is compared to that of a person assisting the birth of a calf. His strength alone, his mastery of the mother will get him nowhere when the calf is not ready to move, unless he dislodges the calf against its nature.
We now understand why our pesukim do not include any reference to the “strong hand.” That displayed itself only after some Jews later opted to remain behind. At this earlier stage in the process, only the “outstretched arm” became apparent, in preventing Paroh from quickly eradicating the Jews.
We return to our original subject. The basis for a fifth cup of wine is a fifth expression: “You will know that I Hashem am your G-d.” This knowledge should not be confused with belief. Rather, it means comprehending and understanding, to the point that one’s knowledge allows him to become davek/attached to Hashem. This expression is not part of the same textual sequence as the other four. This is perfectly reasonable. No one could have reached any level of deveikus without first receiving the Torah, something that would not happen for quite a while.
Such deveikus cannot be attained by all. Only some people can hope to attain it. This fifth expression of redemption, then, does not apply to the entire nation. It promises, however, that some Jews will be successful in achieving it. The fifth cup does not make demands on all equally. It belongs at the Seder as part of the story, but it is not obligatory.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Shemos 6:6-7
2. Pesachim 118A
3. Shemos 14:30
4. Pesachim 87B
5. This approach is markedly different from that of other commentators.