Passover: Renewed and New Meanings

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

By Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner


What do you remember most vividly about your earliest seder experience?

I recall large tables in a living room, surrounded by people who are family apparently but are speaking in Yiddish. Above all, I remember my first experience with a pink grapefruit. Amazing. The first of many differences that evening long ago.

Many of us have memories of our respective Passover experiences with the input of family and friends, and most are pleasant if not inspiring. And now, this year, we have the most recent memories, supplemented perhaps with pictures, melodies and memories of sedarim from the past.

But are we ready to say “Dayenu” enough? Passover may now be ending this year. However, I’m already planning for next year. First, why?

The famed Reform preacher Rabbi Stephen S. Wise often taught that for each Shabbat he composed three sermons: one was the first one he wrote; second was the d’var Torah that he actually preached; and last was on the way home, the one he should have shared.

Passover has similar parallels to our life decisions. “Would have; could have; should have.”

There is the seder we plan; the seder we celebrated; and then the seder we should have planned and for which we should have prepared. But there is next year for what we will perform.

The recipes for each meal are reviewed by the kitchen crew and chosen — for which they are shopped for and which they are presented. Some are old favorites, and some are memorable. Some are tried and praised, and some quietly go to the back of the recipe cards.

Haggadot have been examined, potential seder discussion topics and new Biblical and archaeological discoveries that can’t be overlooked are marked with Post-its, ready for an appearance.

However, I am preparing these thoughts just before this year’s sedarim and must also think ahead as if we have completed them.

For next year, there are an increasing number of seder plate symbols, so much so that the table itself must become the seder “plate” [k’arah] to contain them all.

Let’s plan to continue sharing a list of all the new and innovative seder plate symbols that have evolved to address the issue of inclusivity and bring in those who still feel marginalized if not excluded from the Jewish community.

Some “new” additions have become “semi-traditional” and are well-known, such as the orange on the seder plate. I found in my files one I had forgotten — an alternative seder symbol for LGBTQ inclusivity.

Here is the backstory: Invited to a seder, a guest asked the host if she could add cinnamon sticks. When asked why, she explained: “Judaism has made huge strides towards inclusiveness for the LGBT community. I chose to add cinnamon sticks to my seder plate because it can be bitter by itself or be used to sweeten a greater whole; we do use it in charoset. Many traditions use it to symbolize spirituality, healing and love — and when you combine them you get acceptance. I finally feel the LGBT community is fully accepted by Judaism and use the cinnamon stick to symbolize it.”

Finally, the host, a “Conservadox rabbi” said, “You can never take anything away from the seder, but you can always add. I like the symbolism. When you come over, make sure you bring a sealed glass bottle of cinnamon sticks so we can add one to the seder plate.” I was so overjoyed that my eyes began to tear. I am truly blessed to be a part of such an amazing community.

Several years ago I shared my then list of “innovative” Passover symbols with my teen students: (a) a lock and key representing a more equitable program of prison; (b) pineapple, which is sweet and sour, as is life, bringing on both effects of depression and anxiety; (c) olives are famous as a symbol of peace, introduced to the seder plate as a symbol of hope for a world at peace; (d) When Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel via Operation Solomon in 1991, they were so ill that doctors fed them boiled potatoes; e) potato chips or rotten lettuce to allude to the fact that inner-city groceries are cheaper to find in struggling neighborhoods.

For next year, we should encourage the use of additional edible and even inedible symbols to promote asking questions. Consider placing an object or food for which we don’t yet have a meaning. Encourage everyone to seize this opportunity to new meaning for a new symbol for freedom, justice and blessing in a place where there is still none.

Finally, let us ask a Fifth and enduring question — not just for Passover: Why do we Jews focus so often with questions more than answers? Savor the following:

Once although attributed to other Jewish scholars — Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics, was asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?’’

His answer has served as an inspiration for many and should be framed on the walls of all the pedagogues, power brokers and politicians who purport to run our society. ‘’My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’”

“But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist!’’

We encourage that quality by engaging our children and finding meaning in the traditional Four Questions and engaging in many questions more. And, if we don’t find adequate answers this year, then we teach in the words of our sages, “Teiku.” This translates as “let it stand.”

Traditionally, this answer was a contraction of “‘Tishbi yetareitz kushyot ve-ibayot” — ‘Tishbi (i.e., Elijah the Prophet) will answer challenges and questions.’”

And I join with you and your family saying at the end of Passover 5782, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And, if Elijah failed to come this year, then for next year I am already compiling my latest supplementary readings for seder 5783.

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner is the president of Traditional Kosher Supervision, Inc. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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