Bear with me, I am going to build things up the way the Seder song “Echad Mi Yodeia / Who knows one?” does. This post is based on the Maharal’s commentary on Avos 1:2 and R’ SR Hirch’s explanation in Collected Writings III on the symbolism of the numbers 3 & 4.
“One is Hashem”. Nothing more need to be said.
“Two are the tablets”. On one tablet are mitzvos bein adam laMaqom (between a person and the Omnipresent), on the other, bein adam lachareivo (between a person and their peers). (See Ramban, Shemos 20:11, Abarbanel v. 2.)
The first tablet speaks to man-the-recipient; Hashem gives and we enjoy His Good. But there is a paradox in that — since the Ultimate Good He could share with us is his Own “Nature”, to be in His Image, givers in the same way He is a Giver. And so we have the commandments of the second tablet, telling us to relate to others as givers, not takers. (There is an important distinction here between taking and receiving; receiving can be giving or taking, depending on how it’s done. See R’ EE Dessler’s Qunterus haChessed in Michtav meiEliyahu vol I — Discourse on Lovingkindness in Strive for Truth vol 1.)
“Three are the fathers.” And so the human condition is dialectical — we exist both to receive and to give. And out of dialectical tension grows a third entity, the “I” who has to navigate the dialectic. Every human choice grows out of a tension between two desires. One may be good and the other evil, but also between two conflicting goods, such as between choosing truth or peace (tact).
The Torah holds up for us three archetypes, one for each of three pillars of the world listed by R’ Shimon haTzadiq in Avos 1:2: Torah, Avodah (worshiping G-d), Gemillus Chassadim (supporting acts of lovingkindness).
Abraham taught the world that we exist to be givers, and is associated with Chessed — kindness that grows out of a feeling of love / unity with others.
Yitzchaq taught us that our ability to be kind depends on our having a relationship with G-d, so that we can draw down His Good and work with Him. (Kind atheists can only provide what seems to be good from our limited and often short-sighted human perspective. Nor can they get the same level of aid from Hashem, since they aren’t trying to get any.)
And Yaaqov was the man of truth, the man of Torah, the one who taught us that unless we develop our own minds and character, all those highfalutin plans won’t actually end up being lived. It is too easy to get caught up in alternate desires and invent excuses to ourselves to justify them.
And so, human action is threefold: Avraham teaches us how to improve this world and connect to those in it, Yitzchaq — how to draw from heaven and the One Who “dwells upon high”, and Yaaqov — how to perfect that universe between our ears and perfect how we relate to ourselves and our own souls.
“Four are the mothers”. In Qabbalah, like in procreation, the male is that which initiates a process, and the female is where it develops to its full form. Thus the “three fathers” is how we act on the world, and the “four mothers” is how G-d’s “Actions” are received by and effects upon us.
We see G-d as beyond beyond the three ways we act; if we act in three ways, His action is in “four” — where we lump everything beyond the three in a single “beyond us” category.
“HaKel, haGadol, haGibbor, vehaNorah — the G-d, the Great One, the Mighty One, and the Awesome One”, as Moshe put it and we say at least thrice daily in the Amidah. (As translated by the Vilna Gaon ad loc.)
HaKel – G-d who is transcendent, logically prior to any attachment to Creation. Picture the yud of the tetragrammaton, floating there off the top line (the shirtut of a Torah scroll).
HaGadol — Great, Immense, in fact, Omnipresent. This is the G-d of Creation. Everything that exists is caused by Him. Picture the first hei. G-d the Giver.
HaGibbor — the Mighty One, in the sense of Strength of Character. Gevurah is the might of the immovable rock, not the irresistible force. The gibbor is the hero who can resist his evil inclination (Avos 1:2). It’s the G-d who “steps back” from creating to give us “room” to be givers ourselves. Hashem gave us natural law saw that we can make plans and act intelligently; even if though it limits what we can expect Him to do. The constricted line of the vav, the third letter of His Name, connecting Him to us.
VehaNora — Awe-Inspiring. The G-d of miracles, both those that defy nature and the hidden ones. Hashem’s Plan is manifest even though/when He so constricts His Choice of Actions. The final hei, again spread out.
This is also the opening of that berakhah:
- Barukh — the Wellspring,
- Atah Hashem — You (we can say “You”!) are the Merciful that Underlies Existence,
- Elokeinu — our Lawmaker of natural law, which is the level on which most of us generally relate to the world(s),
- veElokei Avoseinu — our ancestor’s Lawmaker, creator of Moral Law, and thus the Worker of miracles when moral law superceeds physical laws.
Creation is done as “Eser Maamaros – 10 Utterances.” (Avos 5:1; Rashi — Bereishis 1:1 and the 9 times it says “vayomer — and He was saying” in that chapter.) Each of these Utterances had four aspects, yielding the idea that Creation comes in 40. And when a person avoids creative activity on Shabbos, he rests from “40 missing one” categories of such activity. The 40 G-d performed, but one of them — making something out of nothing — is beyond our abilities either way. And so building the Tabernacle, a microcosm, involved 39 creative activities, none of which are performed on Shabbos. And when someone sins in a way that undermines creation, his punishment is “40 missing 1” lashes (or as many up to that number his health can tolerate).
Where, scriptural, do we (Tiqunei Zohar in three places) get this idea that all of G-d’s Actions are felt in four ways? Yeshaiah 43:7:
כֹּ֚ל הַנִּקְרָ֣א בִשְׁמִ֔י וְלִכְבוֹדִ֖י בְּרָאתִ֑יו יְצַרְתִּ֖יו אַף ־עֲשִׂיתִֽיו׃
Every one that is
- called by My name, and
- whom I have created (Barasi) for My glory,
- I have formed (Yatzarti) him, even,
- I have made (Asisi) him.
And so, beyond our three world is G-d’s name, the world Qabbalists call Atzilus, and our three which they call Beri’ah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah. 3+1. Four are the mothers.
The Rambam famously breaks down teshuvah into four steps:
- charatah (regret),
- vidui (confession),
- azivas hacheit (abandoning the sin), and
- qabbalah al ha’asid (resolving to do better in the future).
Now, as R’ Ephraim Becker puts it, Mussar is about three things: (1) the real, (2) the ideal, and (3) the path to get there. If we applying this to the four steps in Hilkhos Teshuvah:
- Charatah — One begins with an awareness of the problem (the real).
Transformation from the flawed reality to the ideal (the path) occurs via two channels — cognitive and behavioral.
- Vidui — verbally reinforcing the concept of change
- Azivas haCheit – implementing the new behavior
and finally, with Hashem’s help, one can succeed at
- Qabbalah al haAsid — and actually better live up to the ideal in the future.
This too is how the four cups divide the seder:
1- First cup :
Qadeish: necessary before drinking wine
Urchatz: necessary before…
Karpas: Vegetables, as in “the cucumbers we had in Egypt” that the exodus generation complained of missing in the desert, dipped in salt water resembling tears
Yachatz: breaking the middle matzah, because poor people need to save for later, and saying “Ha lachmah anya“. By using the cups to separate the steps of the seder, “Ha lachmah anya — this bread of poverty”, becomes part of Yachatz an explantion for why we are breaking the middle matzah, and Maggid begins with the filling of the next cup.
The first cup is dominated by symbols of life in Mitzrayim. Reenacting servitude. But also, the reason given for karpas and yachatz i s also to motivate our children to ask the questions upon which we base Maggid. We create an awareness or our need for redemption.
Then we fill the second cup…
2- Second cup:
Maggid: telling over the story. The matzah of teaching. A cognitive analysis of redemption. (If you are interested in structure, the seder [order] in the Seder, you might be interested in this post on the structure of Magid itself.)
3- Third cup:
Motzi, Matzah, Maror, Koreich, Shulchan Areich, Tzafun, Bareich: these steps will (G-d willing, soon) be the actual eating of the qorban pesach “on matzos and maror“. The matzah of the mitzvah, and of reenacting the night Hashem took us out of Egypt, eating the offering as they did on the night of redemption. An experiential repeat of redemption.
4- Fourth cup:
Hallel, Nirtzah: Praising G-d. The post-redemption Jew.
There were 15 semicircular steps up to the last courtyard before the Temple. The levi’im would stand on them and sing. When ascending them for certain ceremonies, they would pause at each step and sing the 15 chapters of Tehillim that begin with the words Shir haMaalos (a song of ascents) or Shir laMa’alos. Ffifteen then is a number by which we ascend to sing G-d’s praises, and speak of his loftiness. For this reason there are 15 things that Hashem did for us in the Exodus which we count out in Dayeinu — any one alone would justify the seder night. And there are therefore 15 steps in the seder.
The number four appears in the seder so frequently that its presence is often commented upon:
- The four cups of wine — and the four terms of redemption and the four mentions of the word “cup” when the butler discusses his dream with Yoseif, the sources of this law;
- The four questions;
- The four “barukh“s in “Barukh haMaqom“;
- The four sons;
- The four names of the holiday: Pesach, Chag haMatzos, Chag haAviv and Zeman Cheiruseinu;
- The four matzos…
“The four matzos“? Don’t we in fact have three (or, as R’ Moshe Feinstein and R’ JB Soloveitchik did, following the Vilna Gaon, having two) matzos on our seder table? What I mean by that are the four meanings we associate with the mitzvah of matzah:
- We start with “Ha lachma anya — this is the poor man’s bread which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt…” The bread of servitude. “Lechem oni — bread of poverty.”
- Then we ask questions, and teach Maggid embodying the other idea of “‘lechem oni’, she’onim alav devarim harbei — that we answer upon it many things.”
- We have the matzah upon which one must eat the qorban pesach. Historically, this concept of matzah was given third, before the actual redemption.
- The matzah also represents the haste of the exodus itself. Rabban Gamliel’s is the matzah that we eat “because the dough lacked [the time] to leaven before the King of Emperors. the Holy One blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.”
(More on that topic, here.)
The meaning of four is therefore built on that of three, which in turn comes from two and The One.
And the same concept of 4-step change is seen in the other fours as well. In the “four matzos“:
- Poverty and suffering of the “poor man’s bread” (the initial “real”), transformed through
- Torah study (“the bread over which we answer many things”) — the cognitive path and
- mitzvah observance — including the obligation to eat the qorban with matzah (the behavioral path), becomes
- redemption — “Hashem’s salvation comes as in the blink of an eye”, the matzah baked on their backs as they fled Egypt (the ideal).
Change cannot be imposed from without — look how quickly the Sinai experience faded and the Golden Calf became possible. In Tishrei, we do teshuvah, we initiate the change. Here, we accept that Hashem is doing the “awakening”. But we must have sufficient trust in Him, bitachon, to work with the Plan of redemption. We cannot be passive recipients, we have to be active acceptors. Four are the mothers, the paths of active acceptance and development of what we are given.
The story of Mitrayim and Yetzi’as Mitzrayim is that exile and troubles exist for the sole purpose of turning them into opportunities for growth and redemption. The seder is a mussar ladder. We not only recall the Exodus from Egyptian bondage 3319 or so years ago, but also the Exodus from the spiritual degradation. The Exodus is not merely a one time event, but an interruption of history designed to show us what is constantly occurring in our own lives. Both nationally, “אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהקב”ה מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם — … Rather, in every generation, they stand against us to finish us off, but the Holy Once saves us from their domination.” And personally, “בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים — In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he left Mitzrayim [Egypt].” (See more on that last quote, here.)
The work of the seder is therefore to make the transition from being a oni (impoverished), a creature batted around by the winds of fate, living in “Mitzrayim” between two narrows, between “the pan and the fire”. And both through thought and through deed we accept our redemption, becoming a servant of G-d.
Something not to lose among all the interesting discussions of its details and various specific phrases.
Chag kasher vesamei’ach! (belashon “lo zu af zu“)