The Erotics of Liberation: More Thoughts about Passover

There is an interesting little argument about the meaning of one of the more popular symbols on the seder plate. The “seder plate” holds symbolic foods which tell the story of Passover. There are bitter herbs which are reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery, there is a shank bone which is symbolic of the Passover sacrifice, there are green vegetables or herbs which are resonant with the Spring in which the Exodus took place. Then there is haroset. If you have ever taken part in a seder, or learned about one, you know that while haroset is supposed to play a supporting role—it is eaten together with the bitter herbs to sweeten the experience—it takes a more central role as a respite from the matzohs and the bitter herbs. There are many recipes for the sweet haroset paste which vary based on country of origin, family traditions, and personal taste. Even Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and jurist, published his haroset recipe in his commentary on the Mishnah. 

As children, many of us were taught that the haroset is symbolic of the mortar which the Israelite slaves were forced to use to build bricks (cf. Exodus Chapter 5). Many recipes do yield a reddish brown colored paste which might look brick-like. However, the sweetness of the haroset, for me, always stood in stark contrast to its symbolic function—remembering bitter hardship. 

The Talmud however is unsettled about the symbolic meaning. In Tractate Pesachim (116a) the question is asked: what is the meaning of haroset. Two answers are given. The first is the one that is commonly known: “In memory of the mortar.” However, the second answer is a bit more cryptic: “In memory of the apple tree.” Which apple tree?

The medieval commentator Rashi cites a verse from Song of Songs: “Under the apple tree I roused you.” This is not a total explanation but rather a signpost. If we follow the sign we get to Tractate Sotah 11a where there is an extended midrashic reading of that verse from Song of Songs (8:5). “Who is this that comes up from the desert? / Leaning upon her beloved? / Under the apple tree I roused you; / It was there your mother conceived you, / There she who bore you conceived you.” The midrashic interpretation takes this scene of arousal and places it historically in Egypt during the time of the Israelite enslavement. 

The narrative that is read into and out of this verse is presented by Rav Avira under the title: “In the merit of righteous women that lived in that generation, was Israel redeemed from Egypt.” The rhetorical question “who is this that comes up from the desert” is answered. It was the righteous women. As the men toiled under the sun in the desert, the women were troubled by Pharoah’s decree of infanticide which might ultimately destroy the Jewish people. The men stayed away from the women for fear that a child would be conceived and, when born, killed by Pharaoh and his henchmen. The women thought that this was doing Pharaoh’s work for him and so, the women would go out to the fields and bring the men food and drink and seduce them under the apple trees. (Don’t try fact-checking, this is the stuff of rabbinic fantasy.) When the women gave birth heavenly creatures descended to make sure that the babies could breathe and that they were healthy. The women would then hide the babies in the ground and plow them over so they weren’t discovered. The earth nursed and nurtured the babies so that they grew until they burst through the ground and came marching back to their families. This then is the story that is alluded to by the haroset according to the opinion of Rabbi Levi, the Palestinian Sage who said that it is a symbol for the apple tree. (Rabbi Yohanan authored the opinion that it was a memorial for the mortar.)

Rabbi Levi’s opinion introduces two things to the seder plate which are vitally important. First is the notion of resistance. The Israelites were not mere passive victims until Moses with the help of God came and redeemed them. There were ways in which the Israelites resisted. This was one. Second, it was the women who refused to allow Pharaoh to deprive them and the Israelite men of both sexual pleasure and children. As Rabbi Avira said, it was by the merit of these righteous women who seduced their husbands that Israel was redeemed. 

When we eat the haroset we are then called to remember the following: Oppressed and even enslaved people are not passive. They are active agents in their own liberation and we should follow their lead. Resistance can be joyous and we should exult in moments of pleasure. Finally, women have always been central to movements of resistance and liberation.

Haroset may just be the symbolic antidote we need in this moment when the possibility of multiracial democracy seems so far off, and horrible things are happening daily in our prisons, on our borders in our streets.

Let us be joyful warriors for everyone’s liberation. 

_______________

For one take on Maimonides’ haroset recipe, see here.

For Passover: 3 thoughts about liberation


I. One of the interesting though less well known customs of Passover is to leave the doors of one’s house unlocked all night. The custom is tied to the fact that the night of the liberation is referred to as leil shimurim/night of vigil or watch in Exodus (12:42): “It is a night of watch [leil shimurim] for the Lord, for taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is the Lord’s, a watch [shimurim] for all the Israelites through their generations.” (Robert Alter’s translation.) The word shimurim, whose only biblical appearance is in this verse, can be understood in the sense of preserving, or waiting for; or in the sense of guarding or being guarded. The custom of leaving the doors unlocked is tied to this latter sense of being guarded. The night of Passover is a night that is guarded or protected for all the children of Israel, and therefore the security of a locked door is superfluous.

This custom reflects and ties together some of the major themes of the holiday. 

The final plague which God inflicted upon the Egyptians was the killing of the first born sons. Prior to this plague, God had ordered the Israelites: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.” (Exodus 12:22) Then “in the middle of the night” God killed all the Egyptian first borns. Why were the Israelites forbidden to leave their houses during the hour of destruction? Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) says that the reason is so that the Israelites would not be involved in the cycle of violence. Only God, Godself would put an end to the structures of an oppressive society. God would extract vengeance but Israel would not. The cycle of violence—first oppression and then vengeance—would be disrupted. Israel would be free to live outside of this cycle, with no need of vengeance. This was the dream.

Understanding violence, whether offensive or defensive, as a net evil, forces one to forge alliances with others so that one’s security is not bound up in either a false sense of precariousness or an outsized sense of safety. On the night of Passover we dream of liberation, and one version of that dream is living in a world in which safety is not based on violence which deters violence, but, rather a world in which alliances and solidarity are safety’s guarantors.

II. One of the obligations of the seder ritual on Passover is for a parent to teach their child the narrative of liberation which “begins in shame and ends in praise.” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4) There is a debate in the Talmud between two of the great Babylonian Sages of the 4th century, Rav and Shmuel, concerning what exactly this narrative of liberation was. Rav claimed that it was the story of moving from idolatry to monotheism. Shmuel claimed it was the tale of liberation from the oppressive slavery of Pharoah and Egypt. In our seder rituals, and in seder rituals for the last fifteen hundred years or so, we include both options. We tell the story of liberation “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and God took us out….” Then we tell the story of liberation again “In the beginning our ancestors worshipped idols and God brought us close to the Divine worship.” 

Rav’s understanding of liberation is primarily intellectual and spiritual. Unless we free our minds we will never be free. This, of course goes hand in hand with physical liberation—which is why we include both in the Haggadah that we read at the seder. However, the intellectual liberation is not as easy as it may seem. To move from idol worship to worshiping one God, is also a way of moving from the idea that one people has the right to enslave another people, to the idea that no one is subservient by nature to anyone, except God. 

For this reason the introduction to the Ten Commandments, the statement of the covenant at which God revealed Godself to Israel and the world, is “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” God’s first act was to crush the violent oppression which was represented by the slave system of Egypt. Only then could the commandments themselves make sense. The first commandments are the prohibitions against idolatry. 

This, however, is a constant struggle. 

There is a story in the Talmud which follows immediately upon the debate between Rav and Shmuel. It concerns Rav Nachman, who was a Sage, his slave Daru, and what happened at their seder. 

Rav Nachman said to Daru, his slave: “A slave, whose master freed him, and gave him gold and silver; what should the slave do?”

[Daru] replied: “He must thank him and praise him.”

[Rav Nachman] began reciting [the rest of the Haggadah.]

(Bavli Pesachim 116a)

Rav Nachman was able to recognize that his slave’s experience were similar enough to his own ancestor’s experiences that hearing them would fulfill the obligation of telling the story of liberation “from slavery to freedom.” However, he was still intellectually embedded in a slave culture and could not see that that experience of having been freed from slavery entailed an obligation to free his own slave, Daru. Rav Nachman saw the liberation from Egypt as our God liberating us from a cruel oppression. He did not understand that God’s liberatory act was intended to show that systemic oppression itself, of any kind, is unjust.

As we sit at our seders this year, we have to realize that the purpose of the seder is not to retell the story of our slavery, but to understand liberation. The point is to interrupt the narrative of enslavement which teaches that one group has the right to oppress another. This is the justification behind all systemic oppression. 

If we are to truly understand the revolutionary power of the seder, it will only be in disrupting the narrative of oppression; of relearning the basic teaching of Sinai — there is one God who is the God of everybody. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: A god who cares for me but not for you is an idol. The backbone of all systemic oppression is the mistaken thought that God cares for me but not for you. The path to liberation is understanding that we are all created in the image of God, that we are all worthy of God’s love, that the opposite of that is violent oppression. 

III. I’ll give Marge Piercy the last word. 

We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes

under our pillows and a memory of blood that is ours

raining down. We honor only those Jews who changed

tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage,

who walked into the strange and became strangers

and gave birth to children who could look down

on them standing on their shoulders for having

been slaves. We honor those who let go of every-

thing but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought,

who became other by saving themselves.

(from Magid )