The Passover Pine Cone: Put Prisons on the Plate

Metaphor is a Greek word, deriving from meta meaning “over, across, beyond,” and “pherein ” meaning “to carry or pass” — as in the word ferry. A metaphor carries us beyond. Cicero described metaphor as a kind of borrowing, in which we take meaning from one thing and pass it to another.  It’s a linguistic hand-me-down (if you’re okay with using a metaphor to define a metaphor).

The Rabbis who created the Passover Seder intuited the transformative power of metaphor.  They knew that metaphor was the key to enacting our values, to commanding our actions to obey the moral call of our collective conscience. They demanded, as we read during the Seder, “In every generation, one must see oneself as if he or she came out of Egypt!”

Imagine that — we’re each obliged to see ourselves living in this metaphor; not just imagining our ancestor’s pain, but inheriting it, year after year. This is no easy feat. It demands more than a fleeting moment of imagination or sentimentality. It requires a deep reckoning with one’s own existence and purpose on earth.

The cones from “fire pines” are sealed shut, only releasing their seeds under the extreme duress of forest fires – and the liberation of their seeds fulfills the promise of a fertile future.

Passover itself is the ultimate Jewish metaphor — literally! Meta-pherein, it is a “passing over”—of the Jewish people’s narrative, tradition, worldview, and purpose. This is why it’s a meal. Eating is perhaps the most commonly employed metaphor — we digest ideas, we chew on questions. But what’s amazing about Passover is that on Passover we actually do eat it!  The charoset is a metaphor for mortar, the horseradish for the bitterness of enslavement, etc. And this year, knowing that it’s our obligation to read the story into our lives and to read our lives into the story, we add another symbol to our Seder Plate: the Pine Cone.

We “pass over” pine cones every day.  Inside each of these pine cones is among the most precious of all nuts (certainly the most expensive!) — the pine nut.  We pass more pine nuts in a single day than one could count in a year.  Yet, they remain hidden, unseen.  Moreover, they’re nearly impossible to extract with our own hands.  The pine cone imprisons its seeds, and only hard work on the part of nature compels them to open up.  The cones of Fire Pines, for instance, are glued shut by resin, and only a raging fire can force the cone release its seeds.  So these seeds, the glorious pine nuts all around us, remain “out of sight, out of mind.”

We “pass over” prisons every day as well, and so rarely do we ever see what is inside. Inside are approximately 25% of all prisoners in the world, despite that our country amounts to a mere 5% of the global population. African Americans constitute approximately 40% of the incarcerated even though they make up less than 15% of the U.S. population; blacks are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites.  Through inhumane, excessive punitive laws, unfettered institutional racism, and widespread ignorance and apathy, our system of laws and justice has lost its way: we have “recidivated” back into Egypt.

This year we add a pine cone to our Seder Plate, as a reminder of Mass Incarceration and the work it will take to repair this injustice.  Hidden inside each pine cone is something precious. And we know that, so too, inside our prisons, is God’s most precious fruit of all: human spirit.

We are encouraging all, this year, to join the movement to repair our criminal justice system, enlivening the metaphor of Passover, by adding a Pine Cone to your Seder Plate. Click here for a one-pager—a formal reading, 4 discussion questions, and a delicious recipe for what we’re calling “Charoset Chanina” (“Charoset of Clemency”), which includes- you guessed it- pine cones as a core ingredient.

There is no simple recipe for succeeding in seeing ourselves as having experienced the Exodus, but when we find ourselves living in an age such as this, it clearly suggests we need more ingredients; more symbols on our plates. This Passover, we remember that there was a reason that God passed over Israelite homes on the eve of their liberation: So that we, the community of Israel, will perpetuate the promise to be redeemers in every age.

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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