Seder symbols in a time of crisis

Seder symbols in a time of crisis

Rabbi-in-residence, Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School, Oakland, 

To enhance Pesach table talk over the years, my parents would often ask guests in advance for symbolic items to add to our seder plate display. During Maggid, after reading the Haggadah’s explanations for the central symbols on the table, people would share their items and what they represented. Once, a guest shared iPhone packaging, representing his freedom to unplug from the constant siren call of his screen.

I recalled that incident last week, as I spent the afternoon on screen in order to hold classes, and I asked students to reflect on items they might add to this year’s table. One girl offered a lock —”because we are in quarantine,” she explained. “We don’t have the freedom to go out of our house.” Taking a different approach, another student suggested hand sanitizer: “We are lucky we have the ability to use hand sanitizer; it’s a symbol of privilege and freedom.” A third student suggested a first aid kit, representing prayers for healing.

I shared with them my sense that, as we prepare to celebrate a Pesach that will be very different from all others in recent memory, some traditional symbols may not resonate. Given the current epidemic, items representing the renewal of springtime feel distant this year; on the other hand, the brokenness of the middle matzah, representing a world not yet redeemed, feels especially significant.

One favorite seder symbol that I’ve been reflecting on is the “Dayenu whip”, a custom we adopted years ago from a family of Iranian descent. Before Dayenu, scallions are passed around the table; as we begin singing we proceed to (gently) whip our neighbors with the oversized green onions. (It is always a fun way to break up Maggid, as long as no wine cups are knocked over.) By whipping each other with the scallions as we sing Dayenu—a song that expresses gratitude for the manna in the desert—we symbolically take our ancestors to task for having complained about that manna, as the text says, “We remember the fish we would eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, leeks and onions… Now there is nothing but this manna.” (Numbers 11:5-6)

In playfully chiding our ancestors for their whining, we enact a lesson about being grateful. Whereas the Israelites did not display appropriate gratitude for the gifts that were bestowed upon them, we shift our focus to the blessings in our lives rather than complain about what is lacking. This lesson is certainly as relevant today as it ever was.

This year I am also reflecting on the underlying text. Like our ancestors, we face challenges that require responses from those in leadership, and I find myself wondering if there was any legitimacy to the Israelites’ fears and concerns. The text offers insight both into how complaints are voiced and how to respond.

An obvious question about the Israelites’ complaint is, what did they mean when they claimed to have eaten food in Egypt “for free?” Weren’t they slaves, after all? The nature of their complaint is a matter of debate among commentators.

According to Ramban, the Israelites’ claim was technically true—they did have access to free food. When the people worked on fishing boats, overseers would collect the best fish for the market, while small fish could be eaten by the slaves.

Ibn Ezra, meanwhile, explains that the food was merely very cheap in Egypt, as if it were free.

Finally, Rashi maintains that when the people referenced “freedom” in Egypt, what they meant was that they were free from new commandments they received in the desert.

Each commentator indicates something about what the people were “really” saying when they lodged their complaint. According to Ramban, the Israelites were technically being truthful but leaving out the full story. For Ibn Ezra, the people were embellishing—the food wasn’t free per se, just inexpensive. Finally, Rashi indicates that the “presenting problem” of the food wasn’t truly the issue—what was bothering the people was the commandments, and this was why they lashed out over something superficial.

Viewed together, the three interpretations create a sort of manual for analyzing and responding to complaints or concerns: Does the critique offer literal truths while omitting crucial facts? Is the claim being exaggerated? Is the external problem merely a cover for some other issue? For Moshe to be a good leader, these commentaries suggest, he must be a discerning listener too. Otherwise the solution may be ineffective or result in the dismissal of legitimate concerns.

A crisis such as the one we face requires a discerning ear to go with judicious responses. Crises bring out the worst in people, and indeed we have seen ugly cases of scapegoating, spreading of falsehoods, and profiteering. The Dayenu ritual urges us to say “enough” to such acts, raising our voices where they are needed—not by utilizing alternative facts as suggested by Ramban’s commentary, the fake news alluded to by Ibn Ezra’s, or the external ad hominem attacks typical of Rashi’s, but informed by empathy to advocate for ourselves and those who are most vulnerable.

A crisis can also bring out the best in us; examples abound of modern day Shifrah and Puahs, the midwives who put themselves at risk to save Hebrew babies. From the healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines, to the charitable organizations working overtime, we have seen many inspiring actions.

It may be tempting to assume there is nothing we can do to help, and merely rely on others. Perhaps this is why the scallion whips resonate with me this year; they signify the need to snap out of feelings of futility or complacency, and take appropriate actions. Every act of hesed we make—connecting with someone in isolation, sending care packages, signing letters of advocacy and contributing to charitable causes—brings us one step closer to the apex of the Haggadah, a rebuilt Jerusalem and ultimate redemption. Ken yehi ratzon.

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