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The 5th Cup

Proverbs 18:21 tells us that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,”

It’s a truth that is, literally, fleshed out in Parashat Metzora (Lev.14:1-15:33) which discusses how speech poisoned by gossip manifests itself as a disorder the Torah calls tza’arat. The word describes something akin to leprosy except that it affects more than the body, but also clothing and even the walls of a home. Instructions for curing this disorder is cleansing supervised by the kohanim.

In our day, we don’t see tza’arat, possibly because there are no kohanim or korbanot. Either way, when the Temple was destroyed, the procedure for curing tza’arat was halted. Even so, lashon hara (evil speech) and gossip are alive and well, fouling public discourse in social media and the press. There is a preventative measure found in Daat Zekenim (a compilation of commentaries from the 12th and 13th Centuries)which teaches that intensive Torah study will insure that one doesn’t fall prey to trafficking in gossip. Torah can bring atonement for this sin--so serious it is on par with shedding the blood of three people: the one who speaks it, the one who hears it and the one who is the subject of the gossip.

There is an intriguing connection to the Torah portion on metzora discussed in Efraim Palvanov’s book, Garments of Light. The author relates a little-known tradition that calls Moshiach, the Leper Scholar because he is “seen at the gates of Rome, sitting with the lepers.” Rome is, of course, prophetically characterized as the Western world, encompassing Europe and North America. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, quoting the Sages, said that the skin of Moshiach will be affected because of his speech—his most powerful weapon. Its power is so great that his body is affected to the extent his skin appears as if he has leprosy!

The idea of Moshiach is very much a part of the Seder.

On the last day of Passover, some will eat Seuda Moshiach, Moshiach’s Meal and read verses from the book of Isaiah that reference the Redemption. But before that, Elijah the prophet must come and he will arrive three days before Moshiach reveals himself. And that’s why we pour a fifth cup, the first night of Passover.

In The Book of Our Heritage, author Eliyahu Kitov explains that after each guest has had their four cups of wine during the Seder, a fifth cup of wine is set aside for Elijah and if it is time, the prophet will come. "The Sages of earlier generations saw the fifth cup as an allusion to the final redemption that Eliyahu will announce when Gog and Magog (the fifth kingdom] will fall. The evening of the Seder is referred to as leil shimurim — "a night of watching." The Hebrew shimurim is plural, referring to two redemptions on this evening: the redemption from Egypt and the redemption that will yet be.”

As they do every year, Jewish families gather around the Seder table and be reminded of the redemptive saga of Passover, an experience that marks them as Israel, a holy nation of pure words and deeds that will unite to cleanse our world with the ultimate source of truth: Torah. May it come speedily in our day.

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