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April 20, 2011

The unblessed cup

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/the_unblessed_cup_pesach_20110420

As we finish our Passover preparations, let’s take a moment to ponder: What has sustained us this past year and enables us to join a seder table? What has kept and nourished you and your family through the continued difficult economic climate and the other vicissitudes of life? What, too, continues to sustain the Jewish people, our people?

The Passover haggadah itself offers an ambiguous answer. Before we get to the heart of the haggadah, we raise our cups and, without reciting any blessing at all, we declare, V’hi she’amda la’avoteinu v’lanu, “It/She has sustained our ancestors and us.” But what is the “it” (or she) that has sustained us and continues to sustain us? Perusing several haggadot, I quickly found diverse responses. Different commentators in different generations found different answers.

Many commentators (Sefas Emes, 1847-1905) suggest that the referent of “it” could be God’s promise (havtachah) to Abraham of a future redemption from Egypt, a redemption to which the Exodus story and seder night attest. This promise is mentioned in the paragraph immediately preceding our declaration over wine. So the God who redeemed us before can redeem us again. This promise and the hope (tikvah) it engenders sustain us.

Others focus on the covenant (brit) that we Jews have with God. Some (Abravanel, 1437-1508) understand the covenant as our Jewish obligation under the covenant — namely, observance of Jewish law (halachah). For them, the structure of Jewish living sustains. Others (Iyun Tefillah, 1908-1995) understand the covenant as right relationship with Shechinah, God’s Presence. If so, then our faith (dat, emunah) regardless of observance, can sustain us. 

The V’hi She’amda declaration itself speaks of redemption from all that might undermine us throughout the ages. Thus some commentators focus upon how the experience of living in exile (galut) helped sustain us or, at least, gave us the tools to sustain ourselves. Most often unwelcome, we never felt completely at home, and our personal and collective identities remained intact. Living under indifferent and arbitrary hosts served to build within us a resilient, strong, persevering character (Ma’aseh Nissim, 1760-1832). Paradoxically, the exile, too, sustained us, as did our own character.

The Alter of Kelm (1824-1898) proposes that the Exodus story itself (yetziat Mitzrayim) sustains us. Our collective memory of our most basic foundational story is elastic enough that every generation and, indeed, every person, can see his or her own story in this story. Thus all Jews connect to all other Jews, and to Jewish history and tradition, when they measure their lives each Passover against the entire panorama of Jewish experience as reflected in the Exodus tale. No wonder we are bidden by the haggadah to specifically see ourselves as if we personally experienced the Exodus. Metaphorically and spiritually we surely have.

I offer a further answer. We raise the cup of wine (kos yayin) for this declaration. While we often recite blessings over wine, our tradition rarely asks us to raise a glass of wine merely to accompany a declaration. What is the power of this act? It suggests to me that we Jews have taken a deeply spiritual approach to living, represented by that raised, unblessed cup. That approach is to find a way to look for something to bless, a reason to recite a blessing and to recognize even small joys that come along that compel us to bless life even amid its vicissitudes — perhaps especially in the midst of them. This is not to undermine the reality of life’s challenges, but a declaration that we will not succumb to them. We do this by maintaining our integrity as Jews and as individuals among all people in the world who strive to live the good life by charting a moral and spiritual path.

So, what sustains? God’s promise? Religious observance? Faith in God? A strong character? The exodus story? Spiritual positivism? The many possibilities point to an important feature of a strong spiritual economy. No single answer trumps or replaces another answer. Good questions have multiple answers that speak to us simultaneously. Furthermore, answers that do not resonate this year might next year or the year after.

This brings us to you, and to your seder this year. What indeed has sustained you this past year? What has sustained your faith, your hopes and your dreams? Ultimately, Passover reminds us that we have them and need them, and they are worth raising our cups and affirming them. V’hi she’amda, May She, the Shechinah/God’s closeness, who has stood by you and enabled you and our people to celebrate a seder this year, sustain us through this year and enable us to raise our cups often during it.

Rabbi J.B. Sacks is a professor of Jewish thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and teaches Jewish Studies at New Community Jewish High School.

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