Friday, April 8, 2011

Passover: An Ode to Karpas

SPOILER ALERT: I WILL BE EXPLORING THIS MATERIAL IN THE CONTEXT OF MY REMARKS DURING THE SHABBAT MORNING SERVICE OF 4/16/11.'s that time of year again.  Jews around the world are actively preparing for the arrival of Passover.

To begin, a little Passover treat:

One of the challenges in navigating the holiday - and especially the seder itself - is keeping track of all of the symbolic foods, and the multitude of meanings that each one of them carries.

In this posting, we devote ourselves once again to the mysterious karpas: the ritual of dipping a vegetable (commonly parsley but you can use potatoes or celery too!) into something bitter like vinegar or (more commonly in America) salt water.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, offers a culinary interpretation about the importance of karpas in his recently published commentary on the Haggadah.  He notes the paradoxical mixing of tastes and the metaphoric application to our lives today.  He writes:
  •  The karpas, itself sweet, is dipped in salt, and [later in the seder] bitter maror [is dipped] in sweet charoset [...] What is the connection between these contradictions and freedom?  Human beings are deeply conditioned to crave the pleasant and the sweet and avoid the unpleasant.  This is a natural tendency.  However, to be free means relating fully to all experience and choosing how to act because we wish to realize our values and commitments.
Taste is an important component of our Passover experience.  Sacks' suggestion that we understand karpas as a ritual that brings different tastes together is a beautiful segue into a larger discussion of our Jewish responsibility to deal [via tikkun olam] with everything that is unpleasant in the world.

But the beauty of Judaism is that there are always a multiplicity of voices: competing ways of understanding the traditions that have been passed down to us.  Here's an alternative (and poetic) exploration of the meaning of karpas from the landmark feminist haggadah published by Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project in 2000:
  • Long before the struggle upwards begins,
    There is tremor in the seed.
    Self-protection cracks,
    Roots reach down and grab hold.
    The seed swells, and tender shoots
    push up toward the light.
    This is karpas: spring awakening growth.
    A force so touch it can break stone.

    And why do we dip karpas into salt water?  To remember the sweat and tears of our ancestors in bondage.

    To taste the bitter tears of our earth, unable to fully renew itself this spring because of our waste,
    neglect, and greed.

    To feel the sting of society’s refusal to celebrate
    the blossoming of women’s bodies and the full range
    of our capacity for love.

    And why should salt water be touched by karpas?

    To remind us that tears stop.  Spring comes.
    And with it the potential for change.  
According to this interpretation, karpas is a ritual that is filled with the potential to heal: our earth, our relationships, and ourselves.

Which interpretation speaks to you? Why?  I'd love to hear your thoughts here on the blog or privately over email.

Please do feel free to print out either/both readings and share them with the people you'll be spending your seder with!

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

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