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Passover and the Cup of Unresolved Questions

Our seder tables are arrayed with many symbols. There is, for example, the matzah, the bitter herbs, charoset and, the four cups of wine. Which of these is the most important?

Is it the matzah? We eat this unleavened bread for the week of Passover to remind us that we were slaves in Egypt. The story is told that when the Israelites hurried to flee slavery the bread did not have enough time to rise and so they ate matzah. In actuality our Egyptian oppressors may have designed this unleavened bread. It is cheaper than regular bread and as many can attest, requires a longer digestion period. It was therefore the perfect food to feed slaves.

The maror and charoset, are these the most important? They likewise remind us about the bitterness of our years in Egypt. With every taste of these symbolic feeds we remember our slavery. The haggadah proclaims: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” These symbolic foods help to make this proclamation a reality. We taste our slavery.

The cups of wine, on the other hand, give us a taste for freedom. At our seders we are supposed to serve wine to each other. This is patterned after the Greco-Roman banquets upon which the seder was modeled. Wine is a luxury item served only to those who are free. It is the paradigmatic symbol of joy. Wine marks our Jewish celebrations, from a bris and wedding to Shabbat and holidays. Every Friday evening we welcome Shabbat with its taste. We usher in our holidays with the kiddush.

On Passover we do drink not only one glass but instead four.

At our seders each of these cups of wine is connected to a verse from the Torah. God makes four promises in the Book of Exodus: "I will free you.", "I will deliver you.", "I will redeem you.", "And I will take you to be My people." (Exodus 6:6-7) The rabbis, who designed the Seder 2,000 years ago, mandated the drinking of four cups of wine to correspond to these four divine promises.

And yet there is a fifth promise: "I will bring you into the land." A discussion among the rabbis ensued. Some suggested there should be a fifth cup correlating to this fifth statement. Others argued that this fifth promise is connected to the fourth and that they should therefore count as one. The rabbis were unable to resolve their debate. No answer can be found in the Talmud. Some say four cups of wine. Others five.

The rabbis agreed that they could not come to a final decision. They determined therefore that the fifth cup of wine should remain on the table, filled but never sipped. And this cup is Elijah’s cup.

When an argument remained unresolved the rabbis would in effect say to each other, “One day when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah, our debate will be resolved and we will then discover who is right and who is wrong. Until then let us sit together, savor our meal and drink our wine. Let the answer remain for tomorrow. Today, let us remain together.”

To this day that cup remains on our tables. Now we open the door and sing to Elijah. I fear that we forget the import of this most important symbol.

Its message could not be more important for our own age. We leave the question on the table. We leave the question unanswered. In a world where politicians proffer easy answers to challenging questions we would do well to take note of Elijah’s cup. It means that we eschew easy answers. It means that we affirm ambiguity. Some questions must remain for tomorrow.

We sit together despite our differences. We join together despite our differing interpretations.

The question remains before us. We drink our wine even though not all questions can be answered.

There sits Elijah’s cup. And there sits the question.

Elijah, and the salvation he promises, beckons us. Perhaps redemption can be found in leaving some questions on the table.