Reflections on the Magic of Four

Our rabbi in a recent Torah study addressed the issue of the role of the number four in the Passover seder. She noted the following:

The number four is about the order of the seder itself, but in general thought, the universe is often divided into four orders and the Passover seder is also a reflection of those four realms.

  1. In all philosophical speculation, there are four areas, what is above and what is below, what is before and what comes after.  
  2. We are commanded four times in the Torah to tell the story pf the Exodus (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 13:14 and Deuteronomy 6:20)).
  3. There are four sources:
  4. The Tanach or Bible itself
  5. The Talmud with the governing laws
  6. The Midrash with its parable
  7. The Zohar which reveals the mystical meaning of the whole event.
  8. The four names for the holiday itself

–    The Passover Festival ((hag Pesach)

  • The Festival of Matzoh (Chag haMatzot)
  • The Festival of Spring (Chag ha-Aviv)
  • The Festival of Freedom (Chag ha-Herut).

Within the seder itself, there are four different types of sacred moments, each divided into its own set of four:

  1. The seder itself has four parts, a beginning and an end and, in between, the narrative and the meal.
  2. We drink four cups of wine, though New Age Jews have often increased the number to five to remember refugees or displaced persons.
  3. Children ask four questions – the wise, the perverse, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask.
  4. There are four matzot on the seder plate, two whole ones, the bottom and top one, and then the two halves of the middle one that is broken in two and one-half, the Afikomen, is hidden.

The four cups of wine represent four stages of transformation or deliverance from virtually any form of slavery, whether slavery to an external tyrant or slavery to a terrible habit such as in a drug addiction.

  • Sanctification
  • Deliverance
  • Redemption
  • Acceptance. (Hallel)

I could go on, but I want to note that thinking in terms of four is not a rare but a common theme in many cultures. In the Hellenistic world, in Plato in particular, there are four levels of knowledge in the story of the cave in The Republic

  1. When we take the images on the cave wall or projections of our imagination to be the truth and we are caught up in the myths of our own time and place, in so-called “authoritative” knowledge.
  2. When we take the objects in the world to prove the reference for truth – objective truth or the correspondence theory of truth wherein we rely primarily on personal experience, either individually or collectively.
  3. The liberation from this dark cave of knowledge where knowledge is only imagery or a reference to objects that are reflected by light and not the light itself, for which we must ascend out of the cave and enter into the daylight of the present through critique, through taking apart the constrictions of this so-called inherited knowledge in favour of negation and deconstruction.
  4. The highest level of all and we look towards the source of light itself, the sun, and are blinded and come to realize that the source of any knowledge is recognition, recognition of our ignorance, recognition of our mindblindness.

Plato also offers us an analogy as well as an allegory to grasp the four capacities within us and the four types of knowledge that result – the tale of the divided line. A line is bisected into two unequal parts. Each part is then bisected in turn into two parts in the same ratio as the initial bisection. Thus, representing the divisions arithmetically, we have the initial division of the line by a 2:1 ratio and then the two divided parts also by a 2:1 ratio.

                 12                             !                                    24 :


        4       !               8               !                8                !                  16                     

The four parts, A, B, C and D, represent what Socrates calls “the affections.” The four capacities in our mind, A and B represent what we see or envision, the visible world of the imaginations and our sensibility. C and D are what we think, the intelligible world grasped by our hypothetical thinking and our categorical thinking respectively. The result is four levels of truth – conjecture, conviction (together encompassing opinion) and then thinking and comprehension, the latter two constituting reason in contrast to experience.

Plato notes that each section has truth value – even the sight of images on the cave wall – our inherited beliefs that form our societies are not to be dismissed out of hand as having no value. Further, Plato had a sign over the entrance to his academy that stated that those who enter here must understand mathematics. Mathematical theory tells us that whenever you bisect a line in two unequal portions, and then bisect each part in the same ratio, the two middle parts will be of equal length. That is, B will always = C. Thus, direct experience or empirical knowledge will have equal value to critique, to critical knowledge which attends to possible and not juts the actual world.  

In Plato, our thinking is considered to have four levels. In Confucian thought, knowledge is based on four tenets:

  1. Rites or Rituals
  2. Relations
  3. Rectifications or Reconciliations
  4. Ren.

Each is divided in turn. Rites and rituals are intentional acts designed to bring a community into harmony and able to act together. Relationships also have a fourfold division based on different assigned roles in society. In Plato’s polity, society was divided into workers, both those who engaged in enforced or unwanted work, and artisans, those who did physical work of their own choosing. In the upper levels were the guardians 0 in Japan, the samurai), responsible for the security and protection of society, while at the top were found the policy makers who provided the overall direction for a polity. For a society to function, all four estates had to work in harmony, that is, their relationship to both the world and to each other must be synchronized.

In Confucianism, four family relations are critical:

  • Husband and wife
  • Sibling relations, or sibling rivalry, particularly older to younger brother
  • Parent to child
  • Brothers and sisters.

Then there are also relations with non-family members:

  • Friendships
  • Permanent landed residents in one’s society
  • Welcoming strangers – the displaced and refugees as well as foreign visitors
  • The enemy alien who poses a threat to one’s society.

Each must be regarded in a different way.

In the Passover tale, these elements are all mirrored   beginning with the antipathy between the Pharaoh and the Hebrews. But there are also the Egyptians who accompany the Hebrews in their exodus – presumably, those members of Egyptian society who were persecuted as well as the Hebrews. Then there are the named members of the society and, among those, the personal loyalties and alliances that develop – as well as the alienation and falling out as a result of certain intentional decisions.

And within the family, in the narrative one finds the placing into the shadows the relationship of a husband and his wife, Moses and Zipporah. Zipporah is a Midianite, and not a Hebrew, but her father, Jethro, will act as effectively a stepfather who teaches his son-in-law how the rule of law must work, not by individual judgements of tribal leaders, but delegated to a specialized class responsible for interpreting and applying the law. There is also the close relationship of Moses and Aaron that will stand in such sharp contrast to the relations of Cain and Able, of Isaac and Esau. The variations in the politics of the family are critical to understanding how a society functions. In the tale of Moses, he has two substitute mothers – his sister Miriam who save his life, and the princess of the Pharaoh who raises him with royalist values.

Let’s return to the seder and the four instructions we are given. “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, come and eat. All those who are in need, come celebrate the Passover. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. This year we are enslaved. Next year we will be free.” Matzah is both the remembrance of slavery and the symbol of redemption; it is the bread of affliction. Secondly, it is the stuff that frees us from our biological needs, that preserves our lives. It is the bread of sustenance.

Slaves are starved of freedom. The rest of us just need to understand what freedom truly is. To really appreciate freedom, one must re-experience what it is to be a slave, what it is to be a slave under the lash of a Pharaoh. It is not sufficient to only experience the need for your next meal. Further, the underlying principle of both is “inclusion”. Friends and family, strangers, both those who lack membership in a social group – and no one with whom to share a meal – and those from whom we have become alienated and with whom we need reconciliation. The Passover festival and meal is intended to serve all of these purposes.

But it also has a temporal dimension. And it is seemingly paradoxical. There is both the present space we live in and the future space we aspire to live in, Jerusalem. On the other hand, instead of the past being epitomized by slavery and the present by freedom to have a seder and to celebrate a holiday under the values of freedom of assembly and free speech, the phrasing says that we are now enslaved and only tomorrow when we live in Jerusalem on the Hill will we be free. That is counter-intuitive, but that is precisely the point of the exercise, to help us understand the long way we still have to traverse to realize our full freedom.

That is because in the symposium that takes place around the seder, it is our duty to not only celebrate our freedom but to discover the extent to which we are still enslaved, to discover that freedom is a process revealed through critique and self-reflection. Thus, the seder has many apparently contradictory and also complementary functions.

It is well to attempt to incorporate the functions of a seder for all levels of understanding, for the very young child to simply teach him or her knowledge by acquaintance, knowledge through familiarity, to the child whom you have to teach how to question, and that knowledge is the result of questioning. In the course of such teaching, the wise child who comprehends and also tries to teach what he or she has learned in the process of asking questions, and the perverse or cynical child who engages simply in questioning as disputation and forgets the importance of empathetic re-enactment, of discovering what true slavery is by reexperiencing what it must have been like to have been a slave, as distinct from a privileged and perverse disposition. Since this year, pesach has two sabbaths, two Saturdays, and ends tomorrow night, you may want to consider having a closing seder to try t understand the various levels of order in the ritual and in the world.


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