Here’s a neat segue from Purim to Pesach from Esther to Miriam involving the allure of women, beautiful and enticing women, righteous and holy women. A woman of valor in Jewish parlance is an elegant blend of both. Tradition never conceals the strength of an attractive woman. It is the seductive nature of Esther’s beauty and personality which saves her people. She faithfully follows in the path paved gently by the noble take-control footsteps of Tamar, of Ruth and of a whole generation of women enslaved in Egypt. It is a path of righteousness and realism. It is a path of feminism and femininity. It is our path.
The question is, does this path lead to the Seder table? This mysterious allure may seem distant, elusive and to not quite fit as we gather around the Seder table. We mothers, wives, sisters and daughters still reeling from exhaustive Pre-Pesach preparations are not necessarily thinking passion. But yet, that is an undercurrent theme present even at the Pesach table. You may have blinked at Sunday School and missed it. But I assure it is there. Take a look at the Seder Plate. It stares right up at us. Not the horseradish or the shank bone - but the sweet charoset; the single item on the plate to which women over the centuries have leant their sensual talents to creating and producing. And for good reason, that charoset is no simple mortar wannabe. There is far more than the obvious here.
For me one of the delights of the Seder phenomenon is the yin yangness of so much of the symbols. The motif of the night is very much the blending of opposites. We remember slavery and redemption. We try to recreate the bitterness of bondage along with the recollection of the sweetness of freedom. The matsah is the paradox representing both. This is the bread of our affliction, we chant. Later we declare, this matsah which we eat is to recall the quick departure from Egypt. Slavery and redemption with sentiments of both despair and exhilaration in one mouthful. That is the beauty of matsah, the beauty of Pesach and the beauty of life. Nothing is simple and the layering of our sometimes incongruous emotions woven together is what makes us human.
The Israelites in forced labor are compelled to manufacture the bricks with which they are then forced to build. Is it not odd that the substance representing these bricks of persecution and mortar of torture is deliciously sweet? That it, more than an other item on the Seder plate is object of the creativity and imagination of the Jewish woman from Morocco to Tunisia? This very redolent ingredient of the Seder Plate tells a particularly bittersweet tale; a story of mirrors, desire, and fruit trees. It is a legend that reflects the enigmatic riddle of impulses, instincts and survival.
Pharoh’s final solution separated men from women. The motive was to limit the procreation of the Israelites. Exhaustive labor in the fields effectively squelched the desire of the male slaves. What did the daughters of Israel do? The Midrash tells us that they prepared food and wine for their husbands, made themselves beautiful and went out into the fields. There they took out mirrors, teased their husbands and aroused their desire. They awakened the ardor of their beleaguered men, were fruitful and multiplied and produced a generation that became exceedingly mighty. From the bitter comes the sweet. The slavery was bitter. The holy beautiful daughters of Israel are sweet. And the children that became the hosts of Israelites are most assuredly sweet.
How is this remembered at the seder table? Rabbi Samuel the son of Meir in his commentary on the Talmud in Tracate Pesachim 115b writes that charoseth is made from fruit in order to recall the apple. That apple would be the fruit later referred to in the Song of Songs 8:5 “I roused thee under the apple tree: there thy mother was in travail with thee: there she who bore thee was in travail.” Yes, the charoseth represents the hardship of labor but can’t help but also recall the transcendent fashion with which Jewish women rose above their dejected circumstances. They recognized that their allure could arouse their mates and in turn guarantee a Jewish future. Not unlike Tamar, Ruth and Esther.
No prop on the Jewish stage goes forgotten. And therefore we must ask, what about the mirrors? Were they never to be heard from? Objects with such innocent charm cannot simply evaporate. They need to take their rightful place among the souvenirs of our people. And so they do. Contributions for the building of the Mishkan, Holy Tabernacle are requested. The Israelite women come forward with their offerings. Mirrors. Moshe considers the mirrors and responds not unexpectedly. There is no place for a mundane symbol of vanity in the Mishkan. The Holy One Blessed Be He steps in, “Accept their offering, for these are dearer to me than everything else because through them the women raised up countless hosts in Egypt.” The mirrors were used in the holy Mishkan for the wash basin, to make pure the hands of the priests before their service of God.
Our tradition teaches us that our forefathers and mothers were redeemed from the Egyptian bondage on account of the righteous women of the generation. Righteousness takes many forms. The standard set by our matriarchs is sublime. It is borne of sacrifice, love and courage. The allure of the Jewish woman is legendary. Exhausted though we may be by Seder night let us not shy away from its presence nor desist from recalling it. The charoseth is a powerful symbol of life and womaness right there on the seder plate for all to be hold. Tell the tale and proudly say, This we eat “Zecher LaTapuach, in remembrance of the apple.”