THE MESSAGE OF FREEDOM
The essence of the festival of Pesach (Passover) is freedom. In honor of the four levels of freedom, we raise our cups four times during the Seder which marks the first days of the festival.
The four cups of wine which we drink in the course of the Passover Seder symbolize four different aspects of redemption to which the Scriptures allude. Each one represents a different stage experienced by the Jewish People during their liberation from bondage in Egypt.
The significance of each level of freedom is explained to us by G-d through four different expressions He used when presenting to the Jewish People the significance of the freedom the forthcoming Exodus.
These four expressions run through the entire Seder night, as described in the text of the Passover haggadah.
The First Cup:
The first cup commemorates the release from physical suffering:
"And I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt."
A slave must labor without respite; his efforts, his time, and his energies, are all devoted to just remaining alive. He must harness all his spiritual powers just in order to keep his body alive, that it may continue to bear his masters' burdens and fulfill his taskmaster's commands. He has no leisure moment to hearken to the call of freedom.
As a precondition to freedom, the slave must be allowed to lay down his burdens and recover his strength and peace of mind. The first cup of wine we drink on the Seder night is in thanks to the G-d who removed the burden of Egyptian bondage from our shoulders, and taught us to once again stand upright, as free men, as the verse says: "And I shall lead you forth, upright."
Let us observe the Jewish People as they celebrate their freedom. Notice the table at which they seat themselves to celebrate their release from bondage, both in their mansions and palaces, and in their most humble cottages and homesteads. The table is prepared as for royalty.
The G-d who took the Jewish People out of bondage released them for all time from the bonds of materialism. He also stipulated that even the most destitute of the Jewish People will become a prince among his people this evening, and will share, as a full member of the nation, in the Jewish People's Festival of Freedom. Pauper or not, he, too, will raise his cup and will bless Him who gave the Jewish People "festivals and seasons of rejoicing." He, too, will pour out his gratitude to Him "Who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this time" of Israel's joyful commemoration of the Exodus.
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were slaves. They were released, but millions of others were enslaved after them. In our times, throughout most of the globe, slavery no longer exists. Jew and gentile alike have come to condemn slavery and human bondage. In most countries, it is no longer lawful.
How did this change come about? Where did man learn to respect himself as a spark of the divine, created in G-d's image, rather than as an intelligent beast of burden, to be bought and sold, whipped and forced to labor, like any other domesticated animal?
The universally recognized source of this giant step toward a more moral, spiritually enhanced world is the Torah which G-d bestowed on the Jewish People on Mount Sinai, over three thousand years ago. Likewise, it is the Torah, or the Bible, as many call it, which taught man to refine his character and train himself to relate to his fellow man with kindness and charity. All over the globe, men of ethics delve into the question of how man can elevate his character and raise his spiritual standard of living.
The Jewish People has no need of such deliberations. The Torah has paved the way for them to a life of increased morality and enhanced spirituality ever since G-d presented it to them thousands of years ago. The map is already there; we need only unfold it and follow its instructions.
Let every charitable soul whose life has been enriched by acts of kindness inspired by the Torah come this evening and respond "Amen" as the Jewish People offer thanks to the Liberator who emancipated them on this day, over three thousand years ago.
The Second Cup:
The second cup of wine commemorates the release from forced labor under the Egyptians.
"And I shall rescue you from their labor." (Exodus 6:6)
The Jewish People lived through decades of enslavement under the cruel Egyptians. Again and again, their masters poured out their wrath on the helpless slaves, who lived in constant fear. The cultural achievements of Egypt under the pharaohs were without parallel in their time, as we learn from many documents extant yet today. The same documents, however, also reflect the moral depravity of the Egyptian empire. Art, literature, sculpture and architecture were all highly cultivated and developed, while the cultivation of man's character and his moral growth were ignored.
Only an iron-fisted, tyrannical regime could keep an entire nation in subjugation for decades. A brutal, dictatorial government, with no regard for justice, is an indication of an ethos which fails to recognize the moral value of freedom as a basic, inalienable human right. In such a morally destitute environment, a slave is merely another possession, to be exploited to the fullest in order to enhance the owner's status, prestige, and wealth.
This depraved attitude explains Egypt's ability to achieve such distinguished architectural accomplishments, which required extensive resources of manpower, and had no equal in their time. No other nation had the human slave force required to raise a structure of the dimensions of the pyramids and temples. The fact that these structures are without equal in man's history is attested to by the fact that they attract millions of tourists to Egypt right down to our times.
This denial of the fact that all men are created by One Creator, who formed them all "in the image of G-d" led to the next step of Egypt's heresy: the deification of human beings in the form of pharaohs. Such was the nature of Egypt. All the wisdom and knowledge it accumulated – and these were extensive – were to one end. They served only to maintain the pharaoh's absolute rule over his people, with complete submission to the powers of nature.
The Egyptians highest concept of spirituality was the instinct for life shared by man and beast alike. For Egypt, this was a god whom they worshiped, and to whom they built altars and offered sacrifices. As evidenced by artifacts which remain from this era, even the kings of Egypt bowed down before idols of themselves. This nation of Nature worshipers, enslaved by their pagan beliefs, tried to lower the descendants of Abraham to the lowest levels of immorality through their deceit, political cunning, and iron-fisted force.
Had they succeeded, a few generations later no one would have recalled that there had once been a nation of Hebrews, descendants of Abraham. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of that generation would be no more than a subjugated caste of slaves owned by the Egyptian crown.
But Heaven did not allow them to succeed. G-d redeemed the people of Israel in order to broadcast to all mankind the message of eternal freedom and the concept of universal brotherhood of man.
G-d sent His prophet, one of the enslaved Hebrews, to stand erect, hold his head high, and present himself before the throne of pharaoh with His message: "Each and every one of them is My child. Send them forth that they may serve Me. All mankind are brothers. And if you persist in regarding My children as slaves, I shall destroy your kingdom."
The Holy One chose this caste of slaves, whom the pharaohs had consigned to eternal bondage to the crown, as His own, and rescued them from Egyptian bondage. At the same time, He made it known to all mankind know that each individual is a son to his Father in Heaven.
The Creator sent His agent, Moses, to stand before the throne, his hand grasping that of the despised Hebrew slave, while declaring in the name of G-d: "This is My firstborn child; send forth My people, that they may serve Me."
Pharaoh and his court were stricken with fear. All the gods of Egypt trembled. For the first time, there was revealed a Power which mocked at servitude, that decried the caste system which elevated the few and oppressed the many. The Judge had chosen to reveal Himself to mankind; He was about to exact punishment from self-appointed "deities." They could no longer deny that this was a Power greater than themselves. Their wise men had declared that they knew Him not; their sages had denied that He existed, but He revealed Himself so that they might no longer deny Him.
In response to the pronouncements of Pharaoh's advisors that He did not exist, this Power revealed His unequivocal control over the Nile and its waters, which He transformed to blood – the "sacred" Nile which all Egypt worshiped as a god.
Then He revealed Himself as Master and Sovereign of the soil of the earth, which He transformed into lice; of the creatures that roamed the surface of the earth, whom He summoned to do His bidding in swarming over the land of Egypt. Every aspect of nature, in turn, did His bidding and arose against Pharaoh and his people. He demonstrated His control over even the light of day; and then, in the final plague, over life itself.
All nature was harnessed to His commands, as a "delegation of destructive angels." Each plague that struck out at the people of Egypt was a "delegation" sent forth by the Omnipotent Creator of all the universe. He demonstrated to Pharaoh and his band of priests that there is a Supreme Power who is One, who is beyond their understanding. He avenged the honor of mankind who had been humiliated, and whose rights as a human being had been trampled underfoot. He raised His voice and made it known that man is endowed with a spark of the Divine, for he was created in the image of G-d.
The nation of slaves were released from their bondage, and sent forth from the land that had been as a huge prison for them. Shortly afterward, Pharaoh recovered from his fear of the plagues, and set out with his troops to recapture his slave force. He was determined to pursue them, to overtake them, and to let out his wrath on them.
But the Sea "fled before the G-d of Jacob", and Pharaoh's troops drowned in its depths. The Jewish People were free.
After centuries of independence in their own homeland, however, their fate again sent them into exile. Once again, tyrants raised their hands against Israel, as the Haggadah states: "For in every generation, they rise up against us to annihilate us." But this time, there is a difference. The Jewish People have the benefit of their past experiences, in Egypt. The lessons of the Egyptian exile stand Israel in good stead; they know for a fact that G-d is with them, and no power on earth will ever succeed in extinguishing their flame altogether. There will always be at least a remnant who will survive and continue to carry the torch. It is this promise "that stood by our forefathers and us."
We therefore dedicate the second cup of wine to our release from bondage. We give thanks to our Redeemer, who eradicated from our hearts the fear of our fellow men and of the forces of nature; to Him who endowed us with the strength and courage to guard our freedom and preserve it.
The Third Cup:
The third cup is dedicated to Redemption:
"And I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments." (Exodus 6:6)
The Jewish People had been rescued from the miseries imposed upon them by the Egyptians. They had been released from their bondage to pharaoh as lifelong slaves. Only now could they begin to realize the potential with which G-d imbued man by creating him "in His image and in His likeness." The slave, subjugated to the whims and wishes of another, day and night, is not free to cultivate the divine spark which G-d implanted within him.
The first step to nurturing this divine spark is to acknowledge the gift of freedom as a present from G-d, and to seek to form a bond with one's Creator.
Let us imagine for a moment that a benign adventurer set out to free a native, Jinn, who was being held as a slave laborer by a cruel tyrant. The captive was subjected to excruciatingly long hours of hard labor and fed only a minimal diet of bread and water. Any slacking or mishap on the job was met with cruel whiplashes. No compensation was paid to Jinn, nor was there any hope of his being liberated in the future. His owner considered him just another beast of burden, a talking version of the horses and oxen who were fed only so long as they served their master's purposes.
The kindly hero sets Jinn free. "You are no longer subject to any one else's desires," he tells the ex-slave. "Now you are free to do whatever you like, whenever you like, and wherever you choose."
In his enthusiasm for rescuing the oppressed and downtrodden, our hero does not place on the shoulders of the former slave even the basic responsibilities of man to his fellow man. There is no mention of Jinn's duty to consider the effects of his actions on others, or on generations to come. Neither does the rescuer inform him of his duties to his Creator, or his obligation to express his gratitude for his release from bondage.
Is this rescuer to be praised for his actions? The truth of the matter is that he is not being honest with Jinn. Each man has the responsibility to fulfill the potential of his individual divine spark. We are not free agents devoid of duties to our Maker and to our fellowman. So long as the would-be rescuer hides these truths from Jinn, he is consigning him to a life ruled by passions and feelings; one form of enslavement has been substituted for the other. The only path to true freedom starts with an acknowledgement of one's debt to his Creator and his responsibilities to Him and his fellowman.
When we eliminate the concept of a Supreme Being from the heart of man, we simultaneously deprive him of his freedom, for we deny him the opportunity to fulfill the mission for which his Creator placed him here on this earth. It is the fulfillment of this mission which is the key to a life of true and lasting freedom. The atheist may cast off the yoke of Heaven, but in doing so, he knowingly or unknowingly places on his shoulders the heavier yoke of the self-centered desires and pleasure seeking. Any individual or society which has not achieved freedom at the hand of his true Master, will eventually sink again into the mire of enslavement.
Consequently, we raise our third cup of wine to our Master in Heaven. Not only did He put an end to our sufferings at the hands of the Egyptians; not only did He put an end to what the Egyptians defined as a permanent state of bondage, to be passed from generation to generation until the end of time; in addition, He revealed Himself to us as the eternal source of true freedom. Our redemption entailed our transformation from enslavement to a master of flesh and blood and to the forces of nature to a commitment to the Eternal G-d and Master of the Universe.
We gained a new conception of our lives; with the Exodus, we became slaves who had been purchased by a new master, the Master of the Universe. This relationship comprises both awe of Heaven and a love for our Heavenly Father. On the one hand, man sees himself as the beloved son of a kindly Father and as the servant of a single, eternal Master, with whom he has a close, permanent bond. This bond is the basis of permanent freedom.
Observe the Jewish People as they sit at the Seder table. As G-d's redeemed children, they raise their cups and recite the blessing over their redemption. The various symbols of the holiday are arrayed before them on the table, as a remembrance of the paschal sacrifice brought at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The banquet begins with a portion of the bread of affliction, matzah, and bitter herbs, and is concluded with a second portion of matzah.
The message of the matzah is clear: our forefathers went forth to their freedom, lacking material wealth, or even a national homeland. Nonetheless, they cast off their chains and went forth from Egypt to become free men. Their national "territory" was the fertile soil of their hearts, and their philosophy of life was their bond with their Creator. The lintel and door posts of their homes served as the altars on which they brought their offering to G-d when they sprinkled upon them the blood of the paschal lamb, just as the Almighty had instructed them.
Their devotion to G-d was their victory. In the merit of this devotion, G-d redeemed them.
All mankind would do well to observe the Seder table of the Jewish People scattered all over the globe, and they, too, would merit their own redemption. At the Seder, we learn not only to fear G-d's outstretched arm, but we also discover where it is that we can achieve true freedom. Let the world watch, as the Jew grasps the bread of affliction in one hand and the cup of redemption in the other, and declares that neither the matzah of bondage, nor the bitter turns of life should enslave the free man. So too, true freedom is not to be equated with release from bondage and the acquisition of material wealth.
No one is truly free unless he undertakes to be free for the sake of G-d. Only dedication to the fulfillment of G-d's will can give significance and meaning to man's freedom; all other forms of freedom are illusory. Freedom is not the consequence of setting oneself free; it is the outcome redemption by G-d and G-d alone.
The Fourth Cup:
The fourth cup is raised in gratitude for G-d's choosing the Jewish People as His own nation:
"And I shall take you unto Me as a nation." (Exodus 6:7)
It represents Israel's unique position among the nations of the world, and its mission in the history of mankind.
How much lies in those words spoken to the Jewish People over three thousand years ago:
"Thus I shall be a G-d to you, and you will be a nation (dedicated) to Me." (Leviticus 26:12)
How sublime the declaration:
"and I shall take you unto Me..."
Herein we find the basis of the concept of Israel as "the Chosen Nation", a nation whose every thought, feeling, idea, and deed – whether on the level of individual, family, community and nation – is subjugated to the will of G-d. The Jewish People are unique in that they view their national mission to be the fulfillment of G-d's will. Like other nations, they strive for peace, but only in order to be free to do the Creator's bidding. Their institutions, their legislation, their habits and customs and mores, are all attuned to the fulfillment of this sublime goal. For the Jew, the greatest pleasure in life is to bring pleasure to his Creator and to sanctify His Name.
True, there is ample evidence of how far we are from achieving this national goal, of how we waver between our desire to fulfill this mission, and pursuing the enticements of the physical world, and how little we are aware of our role as G-d's nation.
We cannot play our role as the chosen nation and at the same time continue to work towards being a nation like all the nations around us, with their external glitter and their temporal powers, which are doomed to pass and sink into oblivion. As a result, we are not yet privileged to exclaim and exult that the day of our final, complete redemption is upon us.
On the other hand, the Jewish People have no cause for embarrassment when reviewing their past. No other nation has played a central role in the history of mankind over a period of millennia, as have the people of Israel. Hence, we raise our cups a fourth time, in thanks to Him who declared long ago His intention to "take you unto Me as My nation."
With this, the fourth and final cup, we raise our voices in hymns of praise – the Hallel – which encapsulates within its sacred words the glory and the pain, the agonies, and the joyful cries of victory, the strength to endure, and the hopes for the future of G-d's chosen people, Israel. Such is the reaction of the Jew: when he recalls all that G-d has done for us, how He has raised us on high, and elevated us above all the nations on the face of the earth, protected us from their evil designs, and empowered us to represent Him on this earth, he raises his cup in joyful gratitude and pours out his hymns of praise.
And all this takes place, year after year, despite the fact that the Jewish People remain scattered throughout the world, still awaiting the day when G-d will gather them from the four corners of the earth and bring every Jew back to his homeland, in boundless joy.
In every generation, the Jew has found the ray of light and hope, no matter how bitter his own fate as an individual. He has risen above personal circumstances to burst forth in songs of praise for the King and Father who accompanied and sheltered him throughout his long history. Wherever the Jewish People may find themselves, this song of praise will be sung at every Seder, until the day when the vision will become a reality, the hopes will be realized, and all mankind will join Israel in serving the Creator. Together, they will raise a cup of gratitude to G-d and sing His praises as one man.
On that day, Israel's unique status as the Chosen People will reach its fullest potential. G-d's kindness will be evident to one and all, when He again causes His presence to dwell in His Holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem. All mankind will perceive the great light radiating from Israel. Around the globe, those who fear G-d and hold His Name in awe will recognize His overwhelming loving-kindness and truth. Together, as one soul, they will join in proclaiming: "Give thanks to G-d, for His loving-kindness is forever."