Why Pesach is a time to toast the Messiah
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Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet explains why many Chasidim will be drinking four cups of wine on the last day of Pesach
As the final hours of the eight-day festival of Pesach draw to a close, many Chasidim gather for a final round of matzah and four cups of wine. This custom, instituted by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760), is a special celebratory meal known as seudat Mashiach — or the messianic feast.
The whole festival of Pesach brings to the fore of our consciousness the concept of redemption. At the Seder we reflect on how we were enslaved in a foreign land from which no man had ever escaped, let alone a nation, yet against all odds we were liberated.
Today, we see a world riddled with chaos, war and famine, and yet again believe that we are in an irredeemable state. But the message of Pesach is one of hope, deliverance and the fulfilment of the dream for a better tomorrow.
This special celebration takes place specifically on the last day of Pesach, for this is a day which is added only in the diaspora. The essence of the added day is that in the diaspora and the time of exile, the Jewish people transform the mundane hours into a day of holiness. On the last day of Pesach, this means transforming these hours into a festival of freedom and redemption. This process of transformation is the very essence of the messianic redemption, converting the very mundanity of our exile itself into redemption, so that Godliness is revealed throughout.
Moreover, the haftarah that is read on this day is the passage from Isaiah that begins, “This very day he will halt at Nov,” predicting the downfall of Sennacherib. A twofold problem arises with this: first, the downfall of this Assyrian invader took place on the first night of Pesach, not on the last day. Second, it is only the opening verses that speak of this subject, while the bulk of the haftarah speaks of messianic redemption.
Yet the very fact that we read this on the last day obviously reflects the correlation between the main theme of the haftarah — the ultimate redemption and the eighth day of Pesach. Just as the first day celebrates the redemption from the first exile, the last day celebrates the future redemption from our final state of exile. The two are intimately connected, the beginning and end of one process, with God in the future redemption showing wonders “as in the days of your exodus from Egypt” (Micah 7:15).
Sadly, the theme of Mashiach has come off the boil, and for many it is more an abstract theorem than a practical reality. Indeed, in recent times, even as the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory generated a world-wide Mashiach awareness campaign, some followers’ declaration of him as the Messiah resulted in other people becoming suspicious of — if not indeed turned off — the whole concept.
For others still, it is only in times of extreme suffering that they grasp at that last possible remnant of hope. They do not perceive our current state of affairs as an “exile”, because we may not be enduring the same level of tyranny as before. But look around you, at the homeless and the infirm; at young orphans and desperate widows and widowers; at war-ravaged countries, and of course the perpetual terror that Israel endures.
Surely, it is the ultimate ambition of every sensible human being to want to live in an era of greater stability. Pesach challenges us to step out of our personal comfort zones and yearn for a better, safer and materially and spiritually healthier world.
One might wonder why we should be worthy of a messianic redemption today when it did not happen in generations far greater than our own. Yet it is precisely the deterioration of our own times and conditions that lends more value to everything we do, for “one thing in distress is better than a hundred in ease” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 3:6).
Greatness is defined not only by the quantitative accomplishments of man but is also relative to the times and conditions of the generation: “a very small act in this generation is equal to many great mitzvot in others” (Sha’ar Hagilgulim [The Gates of Reincarnation], 38).
Finally, there is the ancient proverb, we are “like a midget standing on the shoulders of a giant”. Even as earlier generations may have been greater, the combined good of their deeds and that of our own adds to a sum total that necessitates that now, more than ever before, we should merit the coming of Mashiach.
This is why the Ba’al Shem Tov implemented the “messianic feast”. Because, while belief in Mashiach is a cardinal tenet of the Jewish faith, enshrined as one of Maimonides’s thirteen principles of faith, nonetheless abstract belief is not enough. Our awareness must be translated into action.
As with all the gastronomic ritual associated with the first nights of Seder, so too by partaking of this special meal on the last night and ingesting the food helps to internalise the message, whereby the yearning for Mashiach permeates not just the subconscious but also the physical body in a very real and tangible way.
Having recited the words “Next year in Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the Seder, it is incumbent upon us all to turn that dream into reality.
Yitzchak Schochet is rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue