Apr 2, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor: Why do we take out wine from the cups at Seder when Mentioning the Plagues?

Why do we take out wine from the cups at Seder when Mentioning the Plagues?
March 30, 2012
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Since I never drank grape juice I thought it was a waste of good wine to take it out of my cup and put in on my plate when we read the ten plagues. And then three times more for the acrostic of the names of the plagues! I would rather have drunk the wine! And yet, the reason for this custom is more important every day; perhaps especially today, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Florida.


If ever there were a people whom we should have hated, at least before the Holocaust, it was the Egyptians.

If ever there were a people who perpetrated genocide upon us, it was the Egyptians.

If ever there were a people who dismissed our God, who denied His reality, it was Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

If there ever were a people who relished in the second chance to annihilate us, at the 'Red' Sea (really Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds), it was Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

If ever there were a people whom we should have hated, at least before the Holocaust, it was the Egyptians.


And yet, there is no echo of hatred of the Egyptians in all of our sacred literature. That is incredible. It is unbelievable. Contrary to even everything else in the world, even the political venom in the current presidential primary campaigns, the Torah, Tankah, Talmud, Midrashim, never espouse hating the Egyptians.


The reverse is true.

There is a Midrash connected to the episode at Yam Suf when the Israelites witness the drowning of the Egyptians (we never say that the bad guys should win), that the Israelites want to sing and God says: "My children are drowning and you want to rejoice!" What a statement! The Egyptians are God's children, too? After what they did to us? After their denial of our God? And God says that they are His children! Where does that leave us?


The Rabbis answered: We, too, are certainly God's children. But our message to the world, is that everyone is God's child, unqualified, unrestricted, unlimited. That means that everyone is created in God's image, which means that everyone is holy. When someone dies, of any faith, of any color, of any ethnicity, of any creed, something Godly has been damaged, diminished, lessened. Even the Egyptians at Yam Suf.


And so the Rabbis created a custom that when we read the plagues and their acronym, we diminish the cup of wine, symbol of our joy, happiness and celebration, not to waste the wine but rather to elevate the demand for our humanity, our respect of the "God part" in every person. By honoring others, we honor, show love and respect God. We recognize that in order for us to be free God had to bring the plagues and through them, because of Pharaoh's stubbornness, Egyptians, men, women and children suffered, were in pain. We understand that. We sympathize for them. We do not relish in their agony. They are human, thus they are God's children. So we lessen our joy and learn this lesson.


What was going through the mind and heart of both tragic participants in the terrible event in Florida? Especially that of George Zimmerman: Did he see another human being? I don't know. Did he see an "Egyptian" whom he should hate, or an "Egyptian" that also suffered and also is a child of God? Will we ever know?


Maybe both needed to have made a Seder, read the Haggadah and took out wine from their cups. Then strangers would have known each other and this catastrophe would have been avoided.


I also return to theme which I wrote about extensively in January: what was he doing with a gun? Why not just have a radio with which to summon the police? Guns coupled with hatred spell death. Even if there is justification for a neighborhood watch, even when there are fears, rational or not, Guns are not necessary. Guns do not solve problems. Guns kill. Hatred is multiplied. Pain increases exponentially!


The most important cup of wine on the table is that of Elijah.

We use the number four because the Rabbis identified four specific languages of redemption. Therefore there are four children and four cups of wine. Yet there is a potential fifth word of redemption – "v'hay'vayti" – "And I will bring you (to the land of Israel)." The Rabbis could not decide what to do, so they utilized their Rabbinic tradition to say that when Elijah comes – he returns to announce the coming of the Messiah – Elijah will answer this question. Until then, we put the fifth cup on the table and don't recite a blessing over it, and if and when Elijah comes, he will drink from it and recite its blessing. Elijah's cup is the Passover symbol of our belief in the ultimate coming of the Messiah, which will usher in a time of peace, a time without killing.


May Elijah come soon.


Shabbat Shalom





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152