Rabbi Russell Jayne: Applying the Passover symbols to modern times

Rabbi Russell Jayne

By Rabbi Russell Jayne

(Calgary) – The Seder plate, an emblematic fixture of the Seder meal, carries with it profound significance in the observance of Pesach. Laden with symbolic foods such as an egg, shank bone, karpas, charoset and maror, it helps us narrate the story of liberation from Egyptian bondage in a very real and visceral way. However, this year, with the conflict between Israel and Hamas continuing to spread its shadow over all aspects of Jewish life and observance, these symbols are taking on new meaning for me as I continue to reflect on the complexities and challenges of the region.

The maror, or bitter herb, has usually represented the bitterness of slavery. Today, it seems to mirror the bitterness felt by both Israelis and Palestinians amidst the protracted conflict. Each side has endured so much suffering and loss, with a deep bitterness deeply entrenched in our collective consciousness. The bitter taste, which always brings tears to my eyes, can serve as a reminder of the need for us to acknowledge and address the grievances of both peoples, fostering empathy and understanding.Charoset, a sweet mixture of fruits and nuts, is used to symbolize the mortar used by our ancestors in Egypt, and also to sweeten with hope the bitterness of slavery. Because it is a diverse mixture, it has the power to represent the interconnectedness and shared history of the many diverse peoples who call this region home. It can serve as a metaphor for the necessity of cooperation and reconciliation because, despite our sometimes divergent narratives and aspirations, all who live in the land are inexorably linked by geography, history, and destiny.

The salt water into which a green vegetable or karpas is dipped symbolizes the tears shed during our time as slaves. Presently, it is a powerful reflection of the ongoing cycle of violence and sorrow perpetuated by Hamas’ attack on October 7th, and the tears of mourning shed for lives lost and futures shattered by this conflict. Yet, because the karpas is dipped into this water of sorrow, we acknowledge that there is hope for renewal and transformation. Our tears do not have to be the last word. There is always the possibility for healing and reconciliation, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The z’roa, or roasted shank bone, traditionally has represented the Pesach lamb sacrificed during the Exodus from Egypt. Today, it serves as a stark reminder of the sacrifices made by our people in the pursuit of our freedom, self-determination, and security. This conflict has exacted a heavy toll, with lives lost and families torn apart. The roasted shank bone should be a symbol of the continuing sacrifices that will be made by our people to overcome adversity and build a better future for all.

The beitzah, or roasted egg, symbolizes rebirth and renewal. Even as this war continues to rage, the presence of a egg represents a shared hope for a just and lasting peace. Like the egg, fragile yet full of potential, peace requires nurturing and protection. It necessitates the collective efforts of Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community so that conditions may be created to foster dialogue, reconciliation, and coexistence.

Finally, the matzah or unleavened bread, embodies the haste with which our ancestors fled Egypt. In the context of this current conflict, it has the ability to symbolize the urgency we must feel in addressing the root causes of violence and injustice endemic in our society. Just as our ancient ancestors journeyed in haste from bondage to freedom, so too must we now embark on a similar urgent journey towards peace and release from the toxicities that continue to poison our ability to see the image of Divinity in all creation.

The Haggadah enjoins each and every one of us to see ourselves as having literally come out of Egypt. I believe that by looking at the symbolic foods associated with the Seder meal through a deeper and broader lens we can facilitate that ancient charge by using this year’s festive gatherings to contemplate and deeply assess the complexities of this conflict and how to navigate our way through the current wilderness. So, as we gather around our Seder tables this year, let us both reflect on the lessons of the past and work towards a hopeful future that can be the ultimate expression of Tikkun Olam, a world freed from conflict and oppression.

Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover to all!

Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne is the spiritual leader and Kol Bo at Beth Tzedec congregation in Calgary.

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