My family seders are pretty much the same year after year. No matter how old we get or how far we travel, when we are thrown back into our childhood house, everyone will somewhat revert back to their childhood roles. My sister will loudly interject random thoughts at every silence, my brother will spend most of the time quietly reading his book and I will get out of awkward conversations with older relatives by claiming to “have something in the kitchen to check on.”
Every year, we’ll read the same story, eat the same matzah and check our watches at the same point during Maggid. But this year, something a little different “cropped up.”
This year, one of the members of the Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, an organization of rabbis in NY that are dedicated to respecting and protecting the human rights of all people, Rabbi Paula Marcus has taken it upon herself to place a tomato on her seder plate to show solidarity with the migrant workers of today, many of whom are underpaid and work in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. Just like the orange on the seder plate, which popped up on seder plates in the 1980s to advocate for women’s roles in Judaism but is now largely associated with a symbol to include gays and lesbians in the Jewish community, the tomato is seeing some controversial reactions.
All opinions are welcome and discussed at my family’s seder but when a daughter of a family friend’s brought up the tomato, the seder lost its usual predictable pace and led to a long discussion which pushed Shulchan Aruch back about an hour.
The debate was this: Should we have a tomato on the seder plate? Is it the appropriate time to commiserate with those in slavery today?
And to answer that we need to ask: what is the seder essentially?
Is it a commemoration of a Jewish event in Jewish history set in the order written down over one thousand years ago and which every Jew will take part in whether in 15th century Spain or in 2012 via Skype? Is it a sacred ritual that discusses how we as a people formed the resilient nation we have today?
Or is the seder a living breathing process to which we can add our own customs depending on our society? Is the seder receptive to growth and changes? Do we use the seder as a vehicle to protest slavery that is still going on today even if those slaves aren’t necessarily Jewish?
Is it both?
I must admit that I don’t think it was solved at my seder (I think at some point my mom gave the “let’s wrap it up” look to my dad which ended the debate pretty quickly) but I think it’s an important topic everybody must discuss.
The concept of adding to the seder is not a new phenomenon; throughout the years many things have been added such as olives to symbolize the hope for peace in the Middle East, artichokes for interfaith families and rotten lettuce leaves, a proposal by the Progressive Jewish Alliance to remind us of the low-income families.
If we keep adding symbols for every problem and war in the world, our table would be covered in cocoa beans, pictures of the Dalai Lama, bricks, beached whales, landmines and orphaned sloths! There is literally no end to the symbols we could add because unfortunately we live in a world where there is endless suffering.
We don’t need these on our table. The seder, as it is, is already about remembering the past and preparing for the future. We don’t need a tomato on the table to remind us of suffering.
We need to focus on the lesson of Passover itself first. We need to learn from the Four Sons how important it is to ask questions, or to just show up if you don’t have questions. We need to learn from the 10 plagues how sometimes, praying and being passive isn’t enough. We need to learn from spilling of the wine that we’re not happy about taking force and that lives lost are still God’s creations. We need to learn from Dayenu how to be grateful. We need to learn from the Four Questions how important children are to our future. All these lessons are needed for us to then go out and create a fair society in which migrant workers get paid.
We need to taste the saltwater tears and sing ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’.
Only once we know where we come from can we become who we need to be, whether that’s someone who champions for rights of sweatshop workers or someone who takes in those sloths.
As one guest at my seder wisely noted, “It’s our job to be a light unto the nations, but we need to remember the source of the light.”