In 2010, Jews in Israel and around the world will celebrate Passover beginning on March 30. Passover is the seven-day holiday of the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorating the ancient Hebrews' escape from enslavement in Egypt. (In Israel, March 30 is also Land Day: the day when Palestinians commemorate and protest the confiscation of their lands by the Israeli government; but that’s another story.)
As I’m learning, the Passover holiday begins with the Seder, a traditional ceremonial meal. Its centerpiece is a special Seder plate containing six symbolic foods. Each has its own significance in the retelling of the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. The stack of three matzos, or unleavened bread, a kind of cracker made of plain white flour and water, has its own separate plate on the Seder table.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
For each of the six traditional items on the Seder plate (as per Wikipedia and the Chabad website) - listed here by its Hebrew name - I note its traditional symbolic role and offer an additional, alternative interpretation. I hope my alternative can help Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, connect with a broader perspective on the meaning of Passover right here, right now, in the land that became the eventual endpoint of that ancient exodus.
Maror and chazaret — Bitter herbs, symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Egypt. Slavery: severe curtailment of one’s freedom. Today, one and a half million Palestinians in Gaza are tasting the bitterness of unfreedom, hermetically sealed in their encircled enclave with no end in sight. Sixty percent are under the age of 16. The Jewish citizens of Israel have hardened their hearts to this reality and they have expected the rest of the world’s Jews to do likewise. For how long will you wait for Palestinians to vanish?
Charoset — A coarse mixture of chopped nuts, apples or dates, and wine, meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt. Today, Israel permits no mortar, or cement, or any other building materials, to enter Gaza. Let them sleep in tents! This, after last winter’s assault on Gaza, internationally documented war crimes (and possibly crimes against humanity), causing over 1,400 deaths in 22 days between December 2008 and January 2009– leaving scores homeless in the rubble. Is this the freedom Moses envisioned? The freedom to attack civilians with the tanks, planes and warships of the “Jewish” State? Doesn’t sound very Jewish to me. Not at all.
Karpas — A vegetable other than bitter herbs, dipped into salt water (which represents tears) to recall the pain felt by the Jewish slaves in Egypt. Tears! Pain! In your name, my Jewish friends, Israel continues its inhuman siege on Gaza. The folks there shed tears as salty as anyone’s; their pain is beyond description. Two of every three of today’s Gaza residents originally lost their homes in what is now Israel when the state was established. Six decades later, they find themselves living a nightmare, a kind of living death: their economy in ruins, their neighborhoods in ruins, their educational and health systems in ruins, even their sanitation systems in ruins. Israel refuses to allow reconstruction. What comes after stripping Gazans of their last remaining sense of sanity?
Z'roa — A roasted lamb shankbone (or a chicken wing, or chicken neck) symbolizes the paschal sacrifice offered originally on the eve of the exodus and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifice! Do you insist on sacrificing the possibility of a sustainable future for modern Israel in the name of its founding myth – since discredited – that Palestine was “a land without people, for a people without a land”? A million of today’s Gazans are from the families that Israel expelled. Gazans have remained steadfast under conditions even the early Hebrews might have found intolerable in Egypt. Gazans, together with all Palestinians, are the people that Jews in Israel are destined to live with, today, tomorrow, and forever. The only uncertainty is how much more hate will be generated by military occupation and armed assault before a process of shared rehabilitation can begin.
Beitzah — A hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the main festival sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and roasted and eaten as part of the meal on Seder night. The egg is a symbol of mourning. Eggs are the first thing served to mourners after a Jewish funeral. The egg on the Seder plate evokes the mourning over the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent inability to offer sacrifices there in honor of the Pesach holiday. Mourning! As Jews, you know a lot about mourning; consider the sixty-two years of mourning, consider every day of every one of those years, among the people - real people, with real names and real children - in Gaza and in squalid refugee camps all around Israel who can see their homeland with the naked eye, but are denied their basic human right of returning home. Sixty-two Passovers and counting. All I ask of you on this year’s holy day, as you contemplate the egg on the Seder plate, is to remember them, no more.