It is time! Get the lamb. Roast it quickly over a fire. Stand around the fire and eat all of it, burn any scraps in the roasting fire. No time to bake bread. Make unleavened bread to eat with it, if you must. Throw together a simple salad of wild greens for a sharp accompaniment to the roasted lamb. Cucumbers, wild lettuce, water-cress, parsley, chicory.
Feel the urgency? By the time the Passover instructions were written down for the practice of future generations, these three elements remained: roasted lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs, of course. And over the course of history, there is no longer any rush. Passover takes weeks to prepare. The meal itself conducted today in Jewish households is a several hour drama of story, song, poetry, and the best of foods and wine. Each with its place and its purpose. Today we focus on the wine.
The wine is there for joy. Throughout the Bible, wine is a symbol of abundance, of joy. It has a key place at celebrations and in the Temple. It is used in some of the Temple sacrifices as a symbol of God’s abundance. It is like pouring an extra helping of joy over the gratitude offered in the sacrifice. An over-the-top joy of abundance.
The rationale for wine in the Seder meal is perhaps surprising. The Hebrews were earthy people. Emotion words in the Hebrew language are connected to experiences of the body. One explains emotions by describing what happens in the body. So wine expresses joy because it intoxicates. It loosens the tongue to sing with gusto, to be a bit more childlike than one might be without it. It brings a bodily joy response.
Four cups of wine are required for the Seder meal. Just enough to produce joy, but not enough to be incapacitated. Passover participants are supposed to feel the joy of their salvation. It is not a somber celebration. A wine connoisseur once commented: “If I had been Moses, I would have improved upon the Passover arrangements. I would have given the Egyptians only four plagues and I would have provided for the Jews ten cups of wine!”
Wine is the backbone of the celebration. Oral tradition in the Mishnah commanded that even the poorest person must drink the minimum four cups of wine, even if he had to sell himself to do labor or had to borrow money to buy wine. No sipping was allowed either, no watering down the wine. Each participant was required to consume at least three ounces of wine as each ritual cup is drunk in the meal.
So, wine is there to bring joy, but what does it mean? The four cups symbolize the four joyous promises of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7.
The First Cup – The Cup of Sanctification
“I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
The first joyous promise is to free them from the burdens of the Egyptians. Obviously this includes the burden of slavery itself. But something more called for God to intervene. As slaves, Israel was not free to act in a way which showed her to be the covenant people of God, to whom all the nations on earth would come for blessing. To be this light for the nations was her primary identity, and she could not live it in chains.
Therefore God makes this first promise, that God would lift her from the burden of the Egyptians, and set her apart for life as the holy people again. This is what sanctification, that big theological word, means. It’s primary meaning is to be set apart. But, for what? A clue is in the story. Each time the famous line is spoken, “Let My people go,” it is followed with “so that they might serve me.” In other words, their freedom was for a purpose – to live in the way of God, totally unlike all the other nations. A people known for their God, rather than for their human king, their military strength, or their great wealth.
This is what it means to be sanctified – to be set apart to serve God. And slavery – any kind of slavery – makes it impossible for us to be sanctified, for no one can serve two masters, as Jesus said. One must be free of one master in order to serve God. The first cup of wine reminds us to get rid of the things in our lives that keep us from serving God.
The Second Cup – The Cup of Deliverance
“I will deliver you from bondage to them.”
It might appear that this second promise simply reiterates the same thing with a few changes in the words. But it has a completely different place in the unfolding of the story in the Seder. Two things are remembered in this cup. One was that because of their slavery, the Hebrews were also coming under the burden of the Egyptian gods. They were forced to respect, if not to outright worship the taskmasters’ gods.
In the Seder each of the plagues is named before the second cup is drunk. And each plague recalls an Egyptian god. The Egyptians worshiped many gods, including Osiris, whose lifestream was the Nile River (turned to blood in the first plague), Isis, an Egyptian agricultural deity (outdone by the hail which destroyed her crops), and Re, the sun god, their high god, who could not break the blanket of darkness Yahweh threw over Egypt. One by one, each plague is named: Blood…, Frogs…, Lice…, Flies…, Cattle…, Boils…, Hail…, Locusts…, Darkness…, Death of the first-born….
But it is not a triumphal naming. With each plague named, a measure of wine from the cup is poured out. The great cost to their Egyptian neighbors is honored. Hear this from the Haggadah: Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”
A full cup of wine represents full joy. We remove some of the wine of joy to show our sorrow for those who suffered then and who suffer now because of our freedom. The Passover reminds us to be compassionate towards our enemies. Like Jesus was from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Third Cup – the Cup of Redemption
“I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm.”
After the family is stuffed with the best of holiday cooking, after the final Afikomen is found and consumed, the meal is concluded with a blessing, accompanied by a third cup of wine. The cup of redemption.
There are two words in Hebrew for the word “redemption:” ga’al, the word in our present text, and padah. The Greek translation makes no distinction, but Hebrew does. So what is the difference between the two words? The word padah is generic – to ransom by paying a price. It can be used in any context, for any kind of ransom. Ga’al is more specific. It is used for ransoming a family member, often from slavery. It is also used for the avenger of blood, which falls to the nearest of kin, and which the Torah seeks to limit.
So why is this distinction important? Because the use of this word shows that God is acting to save Israel from slavery because they are God’s family. This is what families do.
And God does it in a mightily powerful way! With an outstretched arm, a metaphor used primarily in the Bible as part of the Exodus events, but also in creation, and a few other places. It refers to the use of power, the epitome of power – outstretched. Think about the outstretched arm of God in Michelangelo’s painting of creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. That is the kind of image recalled here. The act of redemption of Israel from Egypt is no less an act of sovereign power than is the creation of the universe. This redemption was an act of creation – creating a whole new people, a whole new way of being, not of human governance, but a formerly unimaginable way of organizing – following God alone.
The word ga’al always infers the payment of a price in order to attain freedom for another. What was the price? A lamb? That is not a very high price in the big picture of things. So what did it cost God? For one thing, it cost God the pain of destroying so many of his beloved created beings in Egypt. We sometimes forget that God is intimately connected to all beings, all the elements, earth itself. The havoc God wreaked on a whole civilization in that moment cost God dearly. And there is more.
When Jesus picked up the cup after supper and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), Jesus filled out the cost to God of redeeming his family. God was willing to give his own life that his family would live and be free. No more would the rivers pay. No more would the cattle pay. No more would the Egyptians pay. God’s own self would pay, letting go of all the powerful resources at God’s command, releasing omnipotence, so that grace can run rampant on the planet again. God ended God’s own character as judge and executioner, died to this whole part of God’s character. It is finished. Now all are free. The slaveries that remain are of our own making. Not God’s.
The Fourth Cup – The Cup of Hope
‘Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God. . . .”
And so, the need for the fourth cup. If the cup of redemption is the end of slavery for all beings, then another cup is required – the cup of hope. Hope that one day we will live into the freedom we have already been given. Hope gets special attention as we pour wine into the empty cup which has been before us all evening – sitting at the empty place, the empty chair. Now we are expecting someone. We go and open the door for the guest to arrive. We are ready.
From the time of our exodus out of Egyptian slavery, we have never been a people who has served God faithfully. Early in our trek to the Promised Land we demonstrated that we were not free of our idolatry. We have not wholeheartedly, as a people, fulfilled the words of the fourth cup – that we will be God’s people, and God will be our God.
As you hear, I have moved to the Seder language of inclusion. This story is our story. It is in the first person plural. We have been redeemed from slavery. Yet we have not entered the promised land of freedom for all.
This is the cup of hope for the day when all Israel is in the Land, her enemies are quiet because they have become friends, and peace reigns. Elijah is called in to announce this time of the Messiah, the time of peace.
At this point in the evening all hearts around the Seder table are filled with longing. A longing to become a people of peace and reconciliation, a people willing to redeem our enemies, because they are family with us, co-creation of God. Yearning for the day when we are all family. No one is special over the others. We all share the shade of the one tree of life which has enough fruit for all seasons, enough leaves to heal all the nations, and enough water to give life to all the planet. The words of John’s revelation might capture the longing in the fourth cup:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God… through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations… The throne of God …will be in it, and God’s servants …will see God’s face…. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…. “See, I am coming soon! ….” (Revelation 22, excerpts)
And so, let us conclude the Passover with its final words:
Next year in Jerusalem! Next year may all live in freedom!