Passover is observed through a series of rules. The seder, usually held twice on the first and second evenings of Pesach, is literally an “order.” Whichever Haggadah you use, it is based upon the “order” or structure of the seder. Do this, we are told. Don’t do that. Ask these questions. Sing these songs. Eat this, and hide that. Ask questions and more questions – and the Haggadah will give you a start by telling you some questions to ask. All over the world, Jews are celebrating the redemption of Jews from Egypt – and we do it with the same songs and rituals, no matter where we are.
When my daughter was in elementary school at a Jewish day school, she brought home with her one year (and I can’t remember how old she was at the time) a melody for the steps of the Seder. Wine, then a ritual washing, then parsley in salt water, and so on – only in Hebrew. I am a bit embarrassed to report that I rely on that song to help me plan and execute the seder. Of course, we have haggadot to guide us. But it is still handy to know what comes next.
And it is this third step of the seder – the karpas/כרפס/ that interests me now. The ritual of karpas involves taking a green veggie, usually parsley, although some use celery, and dipping it into salt water. This is the first of the “dipping twice” mention in the Four Questions; the other is nearer meal time, when we “dip” our Marror in charoset.
In modern times, we don’t really think about dipping at all. Of course, people dip veggies into hummus and chips into guac. We might smear our burger with ketchup, or a hot dog with mustard. “Dipping,” combining two foods happens all the time. It is just at seder that we consciously notice it.
The salt water’s symbolism is easy: it stands for tears. But whose tears? From when? It might be the weeping of the slaves in Egypt, but it could also be the tears of the Egyptians upon losing the first born in each household. The bowl is filled with water, which is life-giving and essential, and then salted. Salt, too, is vital: it gives food flavor; it is needed in everyday cooking as well as keeping food edible for a long time, which was crucial in the days before refrigeration came along.
What are we preserving with this salt water? We remember the pain of our ancestors, all of losses over generations and generations. We may have left slavery behind, but not pain. Persecution happened to Jews of every time period, of every place in history. And pain, whether from without or within, surely exists for all of, young and old, married, single, or widowed, Jew and non-Jew alike.
If Pesach is the story of yitzi’at mitzrayim/יצאת מצריים/the going out of Egypt, the going out the narrow spaces into the openness – and overwhelming – of the wilderness, then surely each of us have our own tale (or tales!) to tell. There is no person without a story. We have been in places of suffering, for whatever reason, and we strive to live through that suffering to the other side. We can watch the plagues around us, and wonder at our safety. Or we might see them falling on our own heads: blood, frogs, locust, darkness. Some have experienced the death of a beloved child. Most have survived the death of at least someone we cared for. We lose jobs, health, partners. Of course we weep.
This is the brilliance of the seder: to catch our tears, tell us our story, and then redeem it.
If the salt water comes from our narrow places, places of hurt and loss, then what is the parsley?
Perhaps the parsley represents the not just the greenery of spring and fresh vegetables. Rather, it speaks to the healing characteristic of nature.
I was in Sanibel, Florida, for a conference in February. Driving in from the airport, we could see downed trees everywhere, horrible losses from a raging hurricane months earlier. And yet, between the tangle of trunks of those palms laid flat, there was mother nature, working her will with new trees, with greenery wherever I looked. Life will out, we were told back in the movie Jurassic Park. In the spacious wilderness or in the confines of town, life pushes forward.
It can be scary, all that space and all those possibilities of life. What to choose? What if I fail? The answer is not to return to spaces too small to hold all of who we are. It is to take risks. It is to learn from the past, happy or sad, and grasp the next thing.
We dip the parsley – our fresh starts- into the salt water of our past pain. And with that action, we can move forward, taking our whole selves with us, the good and the bad, the joyous and the painful. Our salty tears water and give flavor, context, to our new risks. We can take our pasts with us. We can learn from it. And we can, right at the beginning of our seder meal, begin to move forward once again.