Old foods, new symbolic meanings on the Seder plate

Some people are asking what to add to the seder plate this year. There are many creative answers. For myself, I think we already have all the symbols we need:

Matzah: Represents both being unprepared and responding creatively to novel situations. Even though we have been caught off guard, we are figuring out how to live [in this strange time], and we will turn our Bread of Affliction into Bread of Freedom.

Salt water (or vinegar in some Sephardic traditions): a mild disinfectant. We will take measures to protect ourselves. We don’t need zero risk — just keep it low enough not to overwhelm our healthcare system or our own immune systems.

Charoset: A mixture supposed to represent the mortar that sticks bricks together.  Our ancestors were forced to build literal walls with bricks and mortar.  Today we build virtual walls with “social distancing.”  But nothing is quite what it claims to be.   “Social distancing” actually means maintaining real physical distance while still socializing “virtually.”  Sephardic charoset, which generally includes mashed dates, figs, and/or bananas, really is sticky; but Ashkenazi charoset, chopped apples and walnuts seasoned with cinnamon and held together with wine or grape juice, wouldn’t stick anything together.  It’s virtual, not actual, mortar.    

But our virtual mortar is also sweet, and so is sticking together in tough times.  We are finding all sorts of creative ways to be “virtually” present with each other, from Zooming services to visiting our elders through windows to singing together from balconies.  This virtual togetherness helps ease the bitterness of enforced separation. And yet, it is no substitute for a hug or sitting around a table together. We are almost — virtually — there, but we keep a screen between us.  Charoset symbolizes everthing “virtual” that is being imposed by this pandemic.

Maror: The bitter plants of the world are also among the most tenacious. Like horseradish, like dandelion, we will survive and even thrive in the face of adversity.

Karpas: Spring green. In my family, there was always a cold boiled potato to dip in salt water, along with parsley. After I left home I learned that this was what Litvak (Lithuanian) Jews used for their ritual “hors d’oeuvre” — who had anything green in March that far north??  Karpas reminds us of the importance of short supply chains and eating locally.

Orange: Representative of the way that stories and explanations morph and change. I don’t have time to give you the links right now but there was an original midrash in a 1980s Oberlin Haggadah that referenced a crust of bread, which Susannah Heschel then transformed into an orange and re-drashed (gave new meanings to), and finally there was a widely-circulated folk-midrash, a completely made-up explanation that was believed to be true, mentioning Anita Bryant and an angry man. The orange reminds us to avoid contributing to the “infodemic” of misinformation, rumor, and outright disinformation.

Z’roa: Roasted shankbone, literally “arm,” the most stark of our symbols: a bone from an animal.  If you use a vegetable symbol (most commonly a roasted beet), that was a living being too.  But how like a virus is a harvested vegetable!  Not exactly living and growing, yet still harboring within itself a life force.  It is the heat of roasting that finally destroys its ability to grow.  Our bodies use the same tool. The fever that makes us so miserable is an attempt to roast the virus so it can reproduce no more.   

Z’roa has multiple layers of meaning.  It represents the Passover offering, the main dish of the Pesach meal in ancient times, and that sheep or goat symbolized an even earlier life and death experience.  Just before the tenth plague, God instructs Moses and Aaron to

“Speak to the whole community of Israel as follows: ‘On the tenth of this month each family shall take a lamb, one lamb per household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let it share one with a neighbor who lives nearby, in proportion to the number of people: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. … You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then the assembled community of all the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it.’ … And the blood on the houses where you are will be a sign for you: When I see the blood I will pass over you, so that the plague will not destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:3-7, 13)

Thus z’roa also represents the healthy adaptations that the Israelites made in extraordinary times.  Look ahead a few days and prepare.  Cooperate with your neighbors to meet the needs of people in differing circumstances.  Swab your doorposts with blood, your door handles with disinfectant, to keep out the destroying plague.  (Thank you Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz for that parallel.)

The Hebrew word for “bone” itself, etsem, points to life-sustaining actions.  First, etsem also means “specific,” as in בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה b’etsem ha-yom ha-zeh, “on this very day” (v. 17 in the same passage in Exodus).  This phrase reminds us to be truly present at this specific moment in time.  Thinking about the global pandemic and its ramifications for the future is anxiety-producing if not downright scary for many people.  But the future is virtual, not actually happening.  It is healthier to focus on the reality of this moment, and ground yourself in the specific tasks you want to accomplish b’etsem ha-yom ha-zeh, right now.

From etsem we also have otsmah, strength or fortitude, and atsma’oot, independence or self-sufficiency.  You may surprise yourself to find how deeply these qualities are bred in the bone. You have what it takes to get through this.  

Finally, the egg: The longer it’s cooked, the more rubbery it gets … under ordinary circumstances. But under true adversity, cooked for 6 hours or overnight to make huevos haminados, the egg takes on beautiful colors and is soft and creamy. So we will endure the tough and rubbery times, trusting that we will turn this time to beauty and good when we can.

Feel free to use, please b’shem omro (“in the name of the one who said it” — give credit). May you all have a chag sameyach v’kasher u’vari, a joyful and kosher and healthy holiday, and may we soon be liberated from Mitzrayim (Egypt) — ‘the narrow places’ in which we find ourselves.

Rabbi Debora S. Gordon

Reb Deb
April 2020/Nisan 5780