Cup of Elijah
Our tradition teaches that as history approaches the climactic era of universal peace and brotherhood, it will be Elijah the Prophet who announces the heralding of the messianic era. Additionally, when the Talmud is unable to definitively resolve certain questions of law or practice, it often states that the question have to wait for Elijah. With the advent of the final era, one of Elijah's roles will be to resolve all those lingering scholarly quandaries.
There is an opinion in the Talmud which states that five cups of wine, not four, are to be drunk at the Seder. In practice we follow the majority opinion and drink only four cups. In deference to the minority opinion, however, we pour the Fifth Cup of wine even though no one drinks from it. This Fifth Cup of wine bears the name of Elijah because it is he who will eventually resolve this question, as well as many others.
Jews believe in questions. Whether it is the innocent question of a youngster at the Seder, or the penetrating query of a Talmudic sage, Judaism neither hides its questions nor hides from them. Thoughtful questions fueled by a relentless pursuit of truth and wisdom are part and parcel of the Jewish experience. We celebrate questions and applaud a desire for truth that burns not for a day, a semester, or even for years – but until the end of time itself.
(from the Passover Survival Kit Haggadah)
Blood Libel Protection
Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Open the door and recite the following verses: "Pour out Your wrath upon the nations which do not acknowledge You, and on the kingdoms that do not proclaim Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his habitation. Pour forth Your fury upon them, and let Your burning anger overtake them. Pursue them in anger and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord."
The custom of opening the door for Elijah began in the Middle Ages, with the proliferation of the "Blood Libel." Frequently, if a Christian baby would die unexpectedly, the body would be "planted" in the courtyard of a Jewish home, and then the police would be summoned to "investigate the murder." Passover time was especially volatile, since Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian babies to bake matzahs.
Therefore, the custom began to keep the door open on Passover night, in order to watch out for anyone sneaking into the courtyard to start a blood libel.
This is why we declare at this time: "Pour out Your wrath upon the nations which... have devoured Jacob."
In general, Passover is a night of special protection for the Jews, as the Torah (Exodus 12:42) calls it Lail Shimurim – a night of protection. On that first Seder night, God spared our first born, and kept the Egyptians at bay while we slaughtered their "god" – the lamb.
Because this is a night of special protection, the halacha states that before going to sleep, we can omit many of the regular prayers, since no extra "protection" is necessary!
Being Godlike, Being Yourself
Rabbi Stephen Baars
...their idols are of silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have a mouth, but cannot speak. They have eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear... Those who make them will become like them, all that trust in them. Israel trusts in God... (Psalms 115)
It is a natural consequence that whatever you believe in, you will become like that thing. Whatever you imagine as the highest expression of life is what you will idealize, imitate, and desire. If you think movie stars and the NBA are the epitome of life, then it is they who you will emulate. If you hold a human being in high esteem solely because of his ability to toss a ball, then you will define your own life as well by such demeaning definitions. If shallow people are your idols, then shallow will you be.
It is no wonder, therefore, that in a world of rampant materialism, many have no more depth than the money they believe will solve all their problems.
Many of us have spent the last 20-30 years trying to "be" somebody. Now we are starting to ask, "Who am I?" Maybe, we are thinking, this whole rat race of "being somebody" isn't worth it. Maybe I am somebody valuable already, I don't need to be anybody else.
Hillel, the great Torah sage, said, "If I am only for myself, who am I" (Talmud - Avot 1:14). This is to say, if I ask the question "Who I should be?" I will eventually have to ask the question "What am I?"
Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" reflects the values of Western society. In Judaism, "To be or not to be" is not the question. Rather, "To do or not to do" (or more accurately, "What to do and what not to do") – that is the Jewish question.
Judaism says that only through "doing" will a person "be." In other words, the more we do, the more we become.
It is important to understand that "becoming more" is not defined in terms of productivity or achievement, but rather in terms of direction and purpose. The greater our purpose, the greater we become.
To find fulfillment, a person needs guidelines and a strategy. The quest for "purpose and meaning" requires far more tools than is necessary to achieve "emptiness." The laws of physics tell us that all bodies follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, since we are physical beings, we need an effective strategy to break away from the "easy-yet-meaningless" path.
The path of idol worshipers leads them to become like their idol. The idol has eyes, but sees nothing. The idol worshiper also has eyes, but sees nothing. Such people miss the beauty and meaning of life. How can someone who thinks a piece of wood or stone is the source of all life comprehend how rich and deep life really is? What you "become" results from what you think is at the source of all life. If you think the source is a piece of green paper, then you have very little to aim your sights on.
If, on the other hand, you think that the All Powerful, Eternal, God of infinite understanding and care, is the source of life, then layer after layer of depth, wisdom, beauty and splendor is there for you to hear and see.
To reach those depths, we need tools. This is why the Torah tells us to emulate God. This technique enables us to see with "God-like" vision.
Ask yourself: What would God do if He were in your position? Which path would He choose? This identification with God enables us to raise ourselves out of life's pettiness. It gives us a perspective that is impossible to achieve when we are trying to emulate a movie star.
If we want to strive for the greatest "being" we can be, it has to be a "God-like being." Such an achievement simply cannot be topped. How can a person be greater than that?!
If the source of life is some primordial soup, then all a person can become is a great chef. But if the source is God Himself, then there is no limit to the reach of greatness.
Turning Darkness into Light
Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Why is singing Hallel – Psalms of praise – one of the 15 steps to freedom?
As the feeling of freedom inebriates our souls (helped along by the four cups of wine!), we sing aloud in joy. When the Jews came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea they broke out in song (Exodus chapter 15). When we see the upending of evil, the Egyptians drowning at the Sea, we are instinctively grateful to the One who orchestrated the turnaround! God delivers us from slavery unto freedom – and we are amazed at the beauty and swiftness of it all.
The Jews in Egypt had sunk to the 49th level of spiritual impurity, and only when they hit rock-bottom did they turn to God and cry out. It was at that moment that they were redeemed. Redemption can be as quick as the blink of an eye. Our Egyptian experience began with Joseph sitting in the dungeon prison – and rising to the position of prime minister in the span of one day!
The Seder is the only one of the 613 mitzvot that is performed specifically at night, for on Passover, we turn the darkness into light.
With "Hallel," we abandon all intellectual posits, and experience the emotional joy of freedom. Song is the expression of an excited soul. It is the way to break out of oneself and reach for freedom.