BY A POWER OF FOUR – a Pesach power – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
It’s getting close to time for the Freedom Festival. Pesach – Passover – is a favorite family gathering time for many Jews. Statistically, we are told that more people observe Passover than any other Jewish holiday. How thoroughly? That’s a different question. Do you clean the house, get rid of all khometz, change the dishes and pots, burn the leavened leftovers, and “sell” your khometz through a rabbi to a Gentile? Do you invite respected guests to your Seder and read the entire Haggadah together, with its history of slavery and redemption, its songs and games and rituals as developed over 3,000+ years? Do you give a prize for finding the Afikoman? Do you open your door for Elijah the Prophet?
Or do you just have a family meal?
Whatever you choose from the full supply of traditional practices for this evening, chances are your choice will include some numbers. One Seder song, saved till after dinner to keep the kids awake, starts with the question “Who knows One?”—Ehad mee yodeya? Each number has a special significance. One G-d, two tablets of the Covenant, three Patriarchs, etc. But on Seder night, one number seems to dominate. Four. Throughout the evening, we express our celebration in fours: 4 Questions, 4 Cups of wine symbolizing the 4 promises of freedom, 4 Sons representing 4 varieties of Jewish characters, and 4 Mothers of Israel mentioned in the song. The number itself acquires a special power. Indeed Seder would seem to be the night of 4’s.
Other numbers associate themselves with other occasions. When we think of Hanukkah, the number 8 comes to mind—8 candles, 8 nights. And of course every Bris takes place on the 8th day of a boy’s life. Every week has 7 days. And so do holidays like Passover and Succoth – although an 8th day is added to Passover outside of Israel, and the Succoth seven lead into Shmini Atzeret, the 8th day of Assembly. 13 is the age of majority for Jewish boys, but many families observe the age of 12 for their daughters. Even at Seder we have other numbers: 15 steps in the ceremony; 10 plagues; 7 edible symbols on the Seder plate; Rabban Gamaliel’s 3 requirements – Pesach, Matzoh and Moror. But all these numbers get mentioned just once. That special number 4 comes up how many times? That’s right, 4. All things considered, the relation between Seder and the number 4 stands out as unique.
What we can take with us after Seder is the power of 4 in our daily lives. The rabbis in Pirkey Avot use that number to classify different kinds of human behavior.
#1: Someone who says “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” they say typifies a beynuni – a neutral personality. The beynuni compares to the character of residents of Sodom the evil city, in other words one who does not care about other people.
#2: One who says “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” they call a boor –am ha-aretz. In modern terms, a Communist.
#3:“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” they praise as pious — a Hasid, because he is willing to give what he owns to help others.
But #4: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” they condemn as wicked – a rasha.
Yes, that special number is with us every day. 4 seasons of the year…4 points of the compass…4 equal sides to a square…4 years of college…and particularly on Seder night, 4 promises of freedom: G-d said “I will rescue you, I will bring you out, I will redeem you, I will take you to be My people.” Each in our own way, we live with the power of Four. Have a happy and kosher Pesach!