“I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:6-7)
Last week I spoke about a new ritual at the Passover seder, pouring a cup of water for Miriam. This week I want to speak about one of the oldest rituals, pouring a cup of wine for Elijah. For our own seder, we have two beautiful matching cups, one for Elijah and one for Miriam. But why do we pour a cup of wine and invite Elijah to visit our seder?
For an answer, we turn to a few verses at the beginning of this week’s portion. The portion shows God’s promise of our redemption from Egypt. The Torah uses four verbs to speak about that redemption, mentioned in the verses quoted above. God will free us, will deliver us, will redeem us, and will take us. Four verbs symbolize the four steps in redemption. We celebrate that fact by drinking four cups of wine at the Passover seder. We need to drink the four cups, not take a sip for each cup.
As a kid, my parents allowed me to drink wine at the seder. It was that heavy, syrupy kosher red wine. For years, at every seder, I began to feel sick after the second cup. I had to go lie down. That is how I discovered that I have an allergic reaction to red wine. Today at my seder I only drink white wine. (Yes, white wine is permitted. Nothing says the wine needs to be the color of blood.)
The number four is significant at the seder. We ask four questions. There are four kinds of children. And of course, we drink the four cups of wine. We drink one for the kiddush at the beginning of the seder, one after Hallel before dinner, one after dinner as we say the Grace after Meals, and one at the end of the Seder, before the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” By the end of the seder, filled with food and wine, we feel sated and perhaps a bit inebriated.
But there is a question. If we continue reading this week’s portion, a fifth verb for redemption is used. “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 6:9). Coming into the land is a fifth step of redemption. Perhaps we should drink a fifth cup of wine. This is one of those unanswered questions the Rabbis loved to ponder, do we drink four or five cups?
Thus began the tradition of pouring the fifth cup but not drinking it, rather leaving it on the table for Elijah. There is a tradition that when Elijah comes, he will answer all unanswered questions of Jewish law. So we wait for him to come. As a kid, my parents told me that if I watch the Cup of Elijah closely, I will see the wine diminish a little. I do not know if I ever saw it, but my parents told me that Elijah has a lot of seders to visit. He drinks a tiny bit of wine at each seder, so he does become too drunk.
This ritual raises a deeper question. Is coming into the land of Israel a final step of our redemption? We say in our prayers that Israel is reishit tz’michat geulateinu, “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” It is a beginning. But to my mind, that redemption has not happened yet. Redemption is incomplete. The Messiah has not yet come. We leave the fifth cup for Elijah without drinking it.
There are certainly people in Israel who see the redemption as complete, who wish to set up a Jewish theocracy in the Holy Land run by Orthodox rabbis. These people are not interested in secular Western values such as democracy, personal freedom, or human rights. I am not an Israeli citizen, I do not vote there, and my children do not serve in the army there. I am limited in what I can say about Israeli politics. But many of the trends I see happening in Israel today are quite disturbing.
The cup of Elijah symbolizes that our redemption is incomplete. We still must wait. To quote one of the great minds of the Conservative Movement, Rabbi Robert Gordis, “Leave a little something for God.”