The Niftiest Pedagogic Device There Is

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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The Passover Haggadah, as we all know, is fixated on the number four: Four questions, four cups of wine, four sons and so fourth. But that fixation derives from a much earlier time, when the number four was basically as high as most people could count.

The system back then, we’re told, was “one, two, three, four, a lot.” Even what we have come to know as the Ten Commandments were commonly referred to as “the Four Commandments, plus adultery and the others.”

I could go on, but I do not want to encourage disrespect for the sages of old. My purpose here is not to replace the fourness of the Haggadah, but, in the spirit of freedom, to add a modern twist. Now that we use the decimal system, we need to make room for minyans of things. (Are a thousand minyans a binyan?)

So, without fourther ado: Why do we drink four cups of wine at our Seder?

Perhaps you remember the traditional answers, about freedom reigning in the four corners of the earth, in every season, forever. This year, I propose that we take a different tack. Let’s go for the Top Ten reasons. (Please bear in mind that what follows is an unofficial list, put forward as a suggestion rather than a ruling.)

#10: Because the Manischewitz wine merchants were pushing their product.

#9: One cup for each of the matriarchs.

#8: One cup for each of the patriarchs plus one for Miriam’s orange.

#7: One cup for the eight nights of Hanukkah (except for Tuesday).

#6: Because we cannot eat fortune cookies on Passover.

#5: Because three would suggest the trinity and five the years of the Five-Year Plan, both symbolic of other religions.

#4: One for each time FDR (symbolic of our religion) was elected president.

#3: Because 4.5 times 4 equals 18, or chai.

#2: Because more than four would be excessive.

#1: Because we hope for freedom to reign in the four corners of the earth, in every season, forever.

Your Seder guests may have other suggestions, and you should welcome them. Or, if you are a guest rather than a host, you might want to think of one (or more) in advance, to be offered in a nonconfrontational manner.

Google, incidentally, has 543,000 entries under “Haggadah.” Here’s an interesting exercise for those of you who compulsively bring your Bluetooth or laptop (bad form) to the Seder: Check how many of the Google entries originate in China.

Allright, let’s get serious. The Seder is the niftiest pedagogic device there is. Think of Judaism, if you will, as an elaborate system of vocational education — that is, of inducting people into the Jewish vocation — and then think of the power of such phrases as “Let all who are hungry enter and eat,” “In each generation…”, “We [not ‘they’ but ‘we’] were slaves,” and you get the idea. A whole course on our vocation crammed into one meal.

The actual Seder sways to suit the age of the participants, as also to what’s happening in the world. But the core language remains steady. At our Seder table, we annually debate whether to recite “Pour out Thy wrath upon those who knew Thee not” and we even have some problems with the Four Sons. As do many others, we also add.

An example of what we add:

For lo, the winter is past.

Imagine: Perhaps it was Moses, perhaps some other. A Jewish slave, the child of slaves, grandchild of slaves. Imagine that one day, hungry, exhausted, whipped by the slavemaster, it came to him to say: “Enough! This is no life, and I will no longer wait passively for a better day, be satisfied with the thin gruel of slavery. This is not what I wish for myself, for my family, for anyone.”

The rains are gone.

Throughout history, ours and that of others, but only now and then, there have been those who have found the strength to say, finally, “Enough!” No more chains. No more cruelty. No more oppression. No more degradation. No more war.

New seasons, new possibilities.

So, too, in our own time. We cannot, we dare not, let go of the prospect of peace, as distant as it so often seems, as precarious as are its prospects. Passover comes to remind us that the dream of redemption is not a fantasy. No, the swords have not yet been put aside, the time of the plowshares and the pruning hooks is yet to come. But we know, and dare not forget, that there are those who are eager to resume the journey, even now.

It is not and will not be an easy journey. Between now and peace, there is work to be done. There is hatred to be unlearned, and dignity to be restored. There is tolerance to be taught, and new understanding to be planted. And there are agreements to be reached, somehow.

True, the edges of our wounds have not yet healed, and memories of sorrow sometimes crowd out our dreams. But if the Children of Israel had not made room for the dream, allowed tomorrow to urge them on, we would still be standing on the wrong side of the waters, no desert to cross, no mountain to climb, no land to reclaim.

So even if the seas are reddened with new blood, even if Egypt lingers, unwelcome, in our hearts and in our minds, we dare not be slaves to yesterday. B’chol dor va’dor, in every generation — and in ours, too — we must cross to the Promised Land, to the Promised Time. Until the new possibilities become the new realities.

And oh, what new verses we will add to the dayeinu when that day dawns.


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