On one hand the placing of the orange on the Seder Plate arose as a way of making an important statement, “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. Both of these are important nuances and messages for Seder night. However, on the other hand my first reaction is to recoil at a practice that changes the essential “look” of the traditional Seder Plate or Seder 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 make gefilte fish from scratch.
But saying 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. The question is, how do we accomplish this in the most effective yet seamless way? I think the first step may be to notice what is on 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 on the table. The question is, do we know what they are and do we know the narrative that goes with them? Our first step is to catch up on the very considerable role that women played in the Exodus and to learn how to blend it in to our reading of the Haggadah.
On Seder night our story is told using a text together with symbolic foods. The text, though lots of folks out there think it is a long drawn out endless series of non-connected paragraphs, is really a very well constructed ordered terse 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 to tease out all of 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 the Four Questions are asked, 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 matzo and bitter herbs, that feel sad. But we are leaning and dipping that feels happy and celebratory. The question 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. It is a bittersweet mood we are in; we remember the slavery with sadness but we are joyously grateful for our freedom.
As this paragraph is read take the opportunity to ask the question; how did the slavery come about? Prepare the answer by studying the first chapter of Exodus. Notice the three stages that 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 and 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 step one of the process, the Midrash tell us that the men were separated from the women, hence Pharaoh’s hope that the hard labor would lead to a decrease in the population. 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 charoseth, 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 the Rabbi Judah Leove, the Maharal, 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.
Finally, the last step in the plan leads to the hiding of Moses by his mother, the vigilant watching of Miriam 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 ten plagues, who leads the people across the sea. There is no mention of Moses in the Haggadah. This radical absence is to ensure that our people do not deify a human being. The role of Moses is downplayed. No human is remembered as the rescuer.
There may be a very powerful lesson here. Seder night is not about a competition between men or women. It is not about who has the power. The Seder is about our people’s unique relationship with God Almighty; God 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.