Reflection, a looking back on our experiences to draw important lessons, is one of the most critical aspects of the process of education. As scholar Laura Joplin expresses beautifully, “it is the reflection process that turns experience into experiential education”.
That brings up an interesting question about Passover. The holiday celebrating the exodus from Egypt has a very clear educational bent. The seder is in essence an ancient lesson plan with an emphasis on questions and teaching children based on their curiosity and character. Given this deeply educational nature, where might we find the opportunities for reflection which must surely be there? There are actually several reflective moments but we will turn our attention to one, or better yet, four. Specifically, the four cups.
Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azualai, the Hida, in his Talmudic commentary Petah ‘Einayim, reminds us that according to the Talmud, each of the four cups represents a distinct phrase used in the Torah to describe God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, “and I will bring you out…”, “and I will rescue you…”, “and I will redeem you…”, “and I will take you…” (all of these phrases are found in Exodus 6:6-7) . More relevantly, he highlights that these four phrases are not all ways of describing a single event, but rather, a process of redemption that played out over the course of twelve months. In other words, the four cups are a way of reflecting back not just on the event of the Exodus itself, but on the entire year, the process, that led up to that moment. Particularly when we keep in mind the directive from the Mishnah, that “each person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Egypt” (Pesahim 10:5), this reflection becomes the basis for a deeply personalized educational experience.
The Hida’s comment has added significance as we have now passed our year mark contending with the pandemic and as we prepare for our second Passover in some type of isolation. While another Passover in these conditions is challenging to think about, reflection like the kind described by the Hida also offers us an opportunity to embrace an attitude of hopefulness and resilience. When we look beyond the single event of this year’s Pesah and think about the year leading up to it, there are numerous moments of process to have an appreciation for. On a general level, many people have received the COVID 19 vaccine, families have been able to see one another for the first time in over a year as a result, and communities have created innovative ways to connect that will endure into the future. On an individual and personal level, each of us has experienced at least some moments which can be understood as steps toward liberation and redemption.
Of course, meditating upon these steps does not mean ignoring the very real difficulties that remain, in the same way that the steps of redemption the Israelites experienced did not spell the end of their troubles. Inequalities, racism, polarization, and the still unclear path out of the pandemic still loom large. Nevertheless, connecting ourselves to these steps gives us encouragement and healthy optimism. Most of all, it allows us to see beyond the challenges ahead. Just as we took steps to overcome past hardships, we can continue to overcome those that lie before us.
At our sedarim this year, with each of the four cups, I encourage us to make space to reflect and discuss the moments that have marked steps forward in our experience, and to embrace the strength and resilience they brought to us. When we reflect in this way, we see the process that has brought us here and discover the process for possibilities to move forward. If Passover succeeds in teaching us only that, then what an education it will have given us!