I am dreading what I know will become an uncomfortable moment as we get ready for my family's seder. I am committed to placing an orange on the seder plate. It is a practice I began in college and I intend to continue. My mother has already let me know that she opposes the addition, but I feel it is an important feminist statement. But as I was explaining it to her, I realized I may not have the details straight. Why do we put an orange on the seder plate? Do you agree it is an important new custom? How do you feel about adding a Cup for Miriam?
This is a tough question. On one hand the placing of the orange on the seder plate arose as a way of making an important statement, that "all Jews have a place at the table." Miriam's Cup filled with water tells the story of her song, her well and her role in the Exodus. These are both important nuances and messages for seder night.
However, my first reaction is to recoil at a practice that changes the essential "look" of the traditional seder plate or table. I guess this is an instance where my feminism collides with my deep sense of tradition. At Pesach time I am very attached to the notion that the table and the traditions continue to look the same. But then again, I may be the wrong person to ask. I still use my grandmother's pots, my mother's dishes, and I make gefilte fish from scratch.
Having said this, I need to emphasize that I am very much in favor of the idea that the telling of the story of the Exodus must include the telling of the story of the women of the Exodus. How do we accomplish this most effectively and seamlessly?
The first step may be to notice what we put onto the seder table, and appreciate its connection to the female role in the Exodus. You will be surprised when you realize that the critical elements are already there -- the question is, do we know what they are and the narrative that goes with them? Women played a considerable role in the Exodus so let's learn how to blend it into our reading of the Haggadah.
On seder night, our story is told by joining text with symbolic foods. Though lots of folks think the Haggadah is a long, drawn-out series of unconnected paragraphs, it is really a very well-constructed and ordered short story that is infinitely elastic. It is our job to enhance the brief paragraphs with additional commentary and broaden it with probing questions and answers. It is our role as we partake in the traditional foods to offer the rationales for the foods and tease out the subtleties embedded in them. Here are some suggestions for blending the woman's story into your seder:
First, take out a Haggadah. Right after we ask the Four Questions, an answer is offered. The children have asked essentially one question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" They then provide four examples for their question. The question reflects the children's wonderment about the nature of seder night. Are we happy tonight or sad? We are eating matzoh and bitter herbs, and that feels sad. But we lean and dip, and that feels happy and celebratory.
The question really is, why this night is different from other holidays where the mood is clear -- sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes serious? Tonight we seem to be getting mixed messages, happy and sad. The answer is, we were slaves in Egypt but God redeemed us. We are in a bittersweet mood -- we remember the slavery with sadness but we are joyously grateful for our freedom.
As you read this paragraph, ask yourself how the slavery came about. Prepare your answer by studying the first chapter of Exodus. Three stages unfolded during Pharaoh's final solution: step one was the hard labor of slavery. Step two was the attempt to have the midwives murder the baby boys. The final step was the outright enlisting of all Egyptians in the elimination of the male babies. Each of these steps involves a deeply significant role of women. Now is the time to tell these stories.
As the Israelites were enslaved in the first step, the Midrash tells us that the men were separated from the women, hence Pharaoh's hope that hard labor would lead to a decrease in the population. But the women took matters into their own hands. They went out to their men, out to fields under the fruit trees. There they conceived and there they birthed their babies. Point to the charoset -- the fruit in that delicious dish reminds us of those very fruit trees beneath which the children of Israel grew to be a mighty people.
In the second step of Pharaoh's plan, the midwives, identified in the Midrash as Miriam and her mother, take a dramatic step in the history of our people. They stand up to Pharaoh -- their fear of God prevents them from following orders. Remind those around the table that according to Rabbi Judah Leove, the four cups of wine remind us of the four matriarchs. Talk about the strength and the unique courage displayed by women as you drink the four cups.
The last step leads to the hiding of Moses by his mother, Miriam's vigilant watch by the water, and the courageous act of salvation by the righteous gentile, Pharaoh's daughter. It is through women that Moses is saved and through women that the redemption is ultimately realized.
Ironically, Moses' name does not appear in the Haggadah. Moses, who challenges Pharaoh, who brings about the 10 plagues, who leads the people across the sea -- his name is never mentioned. This radical absence is to ensure that our people do not deify a human being and that no human is remembered as the rescuer.
There may be a very powerful lesson here: the seder is not about a competition between men or women. It is not about who has the power. It is about our people's unique relationship with God Almighty, who interrupted history to take an embittered people out of slavery. Though we tell the story of women and of men, let us remember that the real story is about the Divine and our gratitude for being redeemed.