> Holidays > Passover > Themes > Seder Insights

The Passover Paradox

May 13, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Exile means learning who we are not and who we would never want to be; redemption means discovering our true identity.

Some of the most moving and conspicuous parts of the Passover Seder have a surprising common denominator -- the repetition of the number four. There are four cups of wine, four sons, and four questions. And we are moved to ask: Why four?

The four sons are, in fact, archetypes, representing the various responses to the miracle of redemption.

The four cups of wine correspond to the four words that God Himself used to give us an enduring and authentic definition of redemption, namely -- “I took you out…"

The most famous of all are the four questions. By their nature they are questions that no child would ever ask spontaneously. Why would a child ask why no chometz is eaten, or that bitter herbs are, when nothing has as yet been served? All four inquiries can seem very contrived.


The usage of this number is far from a mere interesting stylistic device. It is part of the very essence of what is conveyed on Seder night.

Philosophizing about a number may be a novel idea to some. However, the great Kabbalist, the Maharal of Prague, teaches that when something is true, it is true on every possible plane. It is true philosophically, linguistically, mathematically and spiritually.

And so we learn that the number four is the number more than any other that encapsulates the message of exile and redemption, otherwise it would not be the one used.


Let us examine first the makeup of what we call exile.

From a Judaic perspective, exile means far more than physical expulsion from one's natural home. The deepest level of exile is estrangement. We were (and to a degree are still) expelled not only from our land, but also from ourselves.

Our Sages tell us that the Egyptian exile is the prototype for all the exiles of Jewish history. The Hebrew meaning of the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim is "restriction." The physical restrictions that were imposed upon us during the slavery merely reflected the spiritual repression of our self-definition as a people.

Our national identity was built on the commitment to recognize God in every aspect of our daily life. This was the heritage of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Consider in contrast the denial of God that echoed from Pharaoh’s lips when he asked Moshe “Who is God?”

In Hebrew, the word for pharaoh, paroh, means "uninhibited." The ancient pharaohs created a human-centered society in which abandon was confused with freedom. While the restrictions were few, the prison that this lack of restraint generated was a source of spiritual exile. The soul had no place of refuge. It was buried by the unending litany of material demands made by the body.


The number four symbolizes this very real form of exile of the soul.

It is the number that symbolizes the material realities that surround us, because the physical world is very much a place in which the number four reverberates. There are four directions (east, west, north, south), four seasons, (summer, winter, spring, fall) four basic compounds (fire, water, earth, air).

While the conflict between the material world and the spiritual one can lead to the soul entering a state of ever-deepening exile, it can have the opposite effect as well. Often times we must learn who we are not and who we would never want to be before we discover our true identity. This is, in fact, the beginning of redemption.

Our exposure to the sleaze and corruption of ancient Egypt brought us to the brink of extinction. It also brought us to the point of wanting something more for our children and ourselves. We wanted spiritual freedom and, as soon as this longing surfaced in us, God began His side of the process of our redemption. Thus, the repression of exile was part and parcel of the redemption!


Once this is clear to us, we can understand the usage of the number four in the Haggadah.

The four questions address themselves to the paradox of Passover. By implication we ask:


  • If we are free, why do we still eat matzah -- "the bread of affliction”?
  • If we want to recall the bitterness of servitude by eating bitter herbs, why do we recline like royalty?
  • Why do we dip our food luxuriously in what represents our tears?


The answer is that the contrasting aspects of the experience were both necessary for our redemption.

This is reflected in the four expressions God used to describe our liberation(Exodus 6:6-7)

1)"I have taken you out."
2)"I have rescued you."

Both of these expressions can only have meaning in the context of our being set free from the most oppressive reality that we'd ever had to face.

3)"I have redeemed you."
4) "I have taken you to Me."

These expressions give us far more information about the nature of redemption; they tell not about an escape "from" Egypt as about a journey "to" our ultimate destination -- an intimate and meaningful relationship to God.

The second step is dependent upon the first one. The exile is as much a part of the process of redemption as the rescue is.

This creates a paradox for some of us. It embitters the wicked son. He wants to retreat back into the comforting complacency of spiritual exile. It mystifies the son who no longer believes in answers. We must use the empathy and compassion that a mother would have for her child to free him enough to listen.

But the same paradox frees the simple son to redefine what the experience means to him. The freest of all is the wise son. Once the door is open, he asks the most honest question of all “How shall I serve the God who has made me free?”

The answers provided by the Haggadah give us the key to true freedom. The Haggadah tells us that we must explain to our children the laws of Passover from beginning to their conclusion. Only by ending ignorance that boxes us into half-truths can we resolve the paradox.

May we be worthy of a holiday of true freedom.


Leave a Reply

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram