Posted by: Subway Conductor | March 26, 2021

A Derasha for Passover

           As we have discussed on many occasions, the outstanding feature of the Passover Seder is the asking of questions. Many of the unique rituals of the Passover meal are present precisely to provoke the asking of a question. Why do we wash but not say a beracha before the carpas? Why do we cover and uncover the matzahs? Why do we drink four cups of wine? Why is there a cup for Elijah? Speaking of Elijah, why do we mention this prophet who lived long after the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder?  And as a matter of fact, we mention him twice. Once when we pour the cup of Elijah and once when we open the door for Elijah. The tradition that Elijah visits every Seder is itself cause for discussion.

           And, of course, a significant question that is very often raised at the Seder is: why, if we are retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, do we not mention Moses? (There is a single reference to Moses found in the Haggadah. But this does not refute the fact that Moses has been purposely excluded from the telling of the story.) I often combine these two questions. Why do we leave out Moses, but make reference to Elijah twice?

           Each of these questions has many possible answers. Certainly, Moses is left out because the Haggadah wants to emphasize the fact that the redemption from Egypt was performed by G-d alone. This is a prime example of how Judaism has sought to ensure that Moses not become an object of worship. We find this already in the Torah where the end of the Book of Deuteronomy makes sure to inform us that “no one knows the place where Moses is buried.” Burial sites of famous religious leaders have become centers of religious rituals over the centuries. This is even true about some famous rabbis whose graves are visited by large numbers of Jews every year and various ceremonies are performed there. Moses played such a central role in the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai that it is not difficult to imagine the person of Moses becoming a cult object. Judaism has made sure that Moses not become anything more than a leader of the people. I believe this is one important reason why the text of the Haggadah, which developed to convey the experience of the Exodus from Egypt to future generations, makes no mention of Moses.

           As for the cup of Elijah, one explanation for this part of the Seder is that there was a question as to whether there should be a fifth cup of wine. The four cups are based on the four terms for redemption found in Exodus 6: 6-7: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people, I am the Lord, I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your G-d.” There were some who argued that there should be a fifth cup of wine for the verse continues, “        I will bring you into the Land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….” So, should there be four or five cups at the Seder? Often, when questions in the Talmud were not resolved by the sages, it was said that Elijah will provide the answer when he returns in advance of the Messiah. So, at the Seder we pour a fifth cup, but it is left for Elijah to decide.

           I think there is another explanation for the absence of Moses and the presence of Elijah at the Passover Seder. We need to keep in mind that the point of Passover is not just to remember an historical event of great importance to the Jewish People.  It does not just focus our attention on the past, but on the future. The redemption from Egypt is a model for the future redemption which we eagerly await. We, of course, conclude the Seder by joyously saying “Next year in Jerusalem.” If the Seder were merely a remembrance of a past event, a recitation of the narrative found in the Book of Exodus, then we probably should have expected the name of Moses to have a prominent place in our Seder. But, the point is not just to remember a past event, but to look forward to a future redemption which G-d will bring about. This future redemption will be ushered in by the return of Elijah. As the prophet Malachi says, “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord..”

           Now we can more fully understand the absence of Moses and the presence of Elijah at our Seder. The mention of Moses would have only been part of a looking back at historical events. The mention of Elijah inspires us to hope for a a brighter and more perfect future.

Good Shabbos and a healthy happy Passover!!!


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