When my Exploring Judaism classes turn to the theme of Pesach, we always begin with the story of the Exodus that is related in the Torah. That story itself begins with the brave midwives Shifrah and Pu’ah who resisted Pharaoh’s genocidal decree and saved the lives of the new-born Hebrew baby boys.[1]

Reading the Torah‘s account, we are reminded of the central role played by people in the Exodus – not least, the mother and sister, who saved the new-born baby boy in their family by weaving a basket, tarring it to make it waterproof, and placing it in the reeds of the river.[2] When Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket, the baby’s sister even had the foresight to offer to find a Hebrew woman to breastfeed the baby, and fetched her own mother.[3] At the end of this mini-tale, we learn the baby’s name – Moses.[4] We don’t find out the sister’s name until years later when the slaves have passed through the divided waters of the Sea of Reeds. At that point we learn that she was called Miriam and that she was a prophet.[5]

So, Shifrah and Pu’ah, Miriam and Moses’ mother; she was called Yocheved – but you have to look in the chronology of the Levite family given in the Book of Numbers to discover that.[6] Then, of course, there was the role played by Moses himself in the liberation of the slaves. Brought up in the Egyptian court, going out one day he saw a taskmaster beating a slave, and in his rage, killed him.[7] Taking flight, Moses then found himself in the land of Midian, where he soon married Tzipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian and became a shepherd.[8] That might have been the end of the story, but one day when shepherding the flock, Moses led them achar ha-midbar, ‘behind the wilderness’, where he turned aside to see a strange sight: a bush burning that was not consumed by the flames.[9] Had Moses failed to notice the burning bush, the Exodus might never have taken place. As it was, apprehended by a mysterious presence, Moses returned to Egypt on a Divine mission to persuade Pharaoh to liberate the slaves.[10]

Pharaoh took a lot of persuading. The Hebrew slaves took a lot of persuading. Indeed, we read in the second portion of the Book of Exodus, Va-eira, that when Moses returned to Egypt and told the slaves that they were to be liberated, they would not listen to him ‘because of shortness of spirit’ – mi-kotzer ru’ach.[11]

But then, finally, even the slaves took action to save themselves – indeed, that was the challenge of the final plague: the death of the firstborn. Protected in the land of Goshen by the onslaught of the plagues of flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts and darkness,[12] had the slaves not demonstrated their readiness for freedom by putting the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintels of their houses so that the final plague would pass over them,[13] they would have lost their firstborn, too – and the courage of Shifrah and Pu’ah, Miriam and Yocheved would have been in vain. But the slaves accepted the challenge, and so, the liberation began – and, appropriately, the festival that celebrates the great Exodus from Egypt was named ‘Passover’, Pesach in Hebrew.[14]

I’ve summarised a story that many of you will know quite well. As I said it is a story that is related in the Torah. You will not find it in the Haggadah, the ‘telling’, initially composed by the early rabbinic sages and included in the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law edited around the year 200. The traditional Haggadah does not mention any of the human actors. Taking its cue from a key verse in the Torah, there is only one hero-liberator in the Haggadah and that is the Eternal One – as we read in Exodus chapter 13: ‘You shall tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ [15]

The Haggadah ensures that the story told by parents to their children, from generation to generation, is about the great liberating acts of the Eternal. And yet, there is another message hidden in the Haggadah; a message about human courage and resistance; about what it means to tell the tale of the Exodus and to be inspired to identify with the story. And so, we read in the Haggadah a terse passage related in a rather obtuse way about five Rabbis, who gathered in B’nei B’rak – which is situated slightly inland a little north of the modern city of Tel Aviv. We read:

There is a story about Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar son of Azariyah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. They once held a Seder at B’nei B’rak. They went on talking about the Exodus from Egypt all that night, until finally their students came and said to them: ‘Masters, it is now time to recite the morning Sh’ma!’

Significantly, this passage is included in the Haggadah directly after one that inaugurates the telling of the Exodus tale. We read:

Avadim hayyinu l’Pharaoh b’Mitzrayim – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Eternal One our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One who is Blessed had not brought out our ancestors from Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if we were all wise, all of us discerning and all of us learned and well-versed in the Torah, it would nevertheless be our obligation to relate the Exodus from Egypt. And the more one discusses the Exodus from Egypt, the more praise one deserves.

So, yes, even rabbis are obligated to tell the Exodus tale. But these particular five rabbis may have been doing more than that. The clue that something else was going on is conveyed at the end of the passage, when their students intervened by reminding them that it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma. Clearly, the rabbis had been up all night. But why did they need reminding that it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma? And what were their students doing outside? Perhaps, those five rabbis were not simply relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt. If the five of them did, indeed, gather for the Seder that night, it’s very likely that they were plotting rebellion against the Roman occupation that had become even more tyrannical since the destruction of Jerusalem and the last Temple in 70 CE. And so, the students were stationed outside like guards, and as soon as dawn broke, they had to make sure that their teachers stopped plotting and turned to the usual ritual of the morning and recited the Sh’ma. That rebellion, led by rabbis, did take place and is known as the Bar Kochba Revolt. It lasted from 132 to 135 CE until it was crushed by the forces of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and hundreds of rabbis were put to death. [16]

So, why is this passage in the Haggadah? Why does it feature in the midst of a version of the Exodus that focuses exclusively on the Eternal One? After all, apart from specifically naming five individuals, it describes events that took place over 1400 years after the Exodus. We cannot know for certain why the passage is included, but as we read it each year, we can find a message in it for us and for every generation that fulfils the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus. The point of retelling the story generation after generation is not simply to remember what happened back then, but to connect the tale of liberation with what is happening now, in our own lives. It seems that those five rabbis gathering in B’nei B’rak, inspired by the Exodus story, conspired to challenge Roman domination and liberate their people. And so, the passage speaks to us and challenges us to do the same; to find inspiration in the ancient tale and challenge oppression and persecution in our own day. That brief passage is a message that it is our duty not only to retell the story, but to act.

Encouragingly, the extent to which that message is being heeded is reflected in the multiplication of versions of the Haggadah that draw out the implications of the Exodus for the issues that afflict contemporary society, including, modern slavery, racism and xenophobia, tyrannical regimes, the persecution of LGBT+ people, the oppression of women, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, the destruction of the environment and climate change.

And so, in recent years, new symbols have been added to the Seder plate in an effort to connect the Exodus story with what’s going on in the world today. These include: an orange, an onion, olives, a red chilli and shoelaces. Since these new symbols may be unfamiliar to many of us, I’m going to say little about each one in turn.

The orange is the oldest of the new additions and the most complex. Let me quote from the passage I’ve included in the Haggadah supplement for the shul communal Seder:

Dr. Susannah Heschel tells the story of the genesis of this new ritual in the 2003 book, The Women’s Passover Companion (JPL). It all started with a story from Oberlin College in the early 1980’s … about a young girl who asks a Rebbe what room there is in Judaism for a lesbian. The Rebbe rises in anger and shouts, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” [17]

Though Heschel was inspired by the idea behind the story, she couldn’t follow it literally. Besides the fact that it would make everything – the dish, the table, the meal, the house – un-kosher for Passover, it carried a message that lesbians were a violation of Judaism itself, that these women were infecting the community with something impure. So, the next year, Heschel put an orange on the family seder plate, “I chose an orange because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”

The symbolism grew to include people who feel marginalized from the Jewish community: the widow, the orphan, women’s issues in general, but solidarity with the gay and lesbian Jewish community was at the core.[18]

An onion is a much more recent innovation. In fact, I don’t think many people know about it. I discovered it via a very close friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem, who learnt about it from a friend of hers, Nicky Lachs, who is a member of a modern Orthodox congregation in the city. Nicky writes:[19]

I add an onion to the Seder plate. Why??? After hearing a shiur by Rabbi Aviyya Ha-Cohen who claimed (using fascinating linguistic analysis) that King’s Solomon’s sin was enslaving his workers – and in effect, forgetting the message of our own slavery in Egypt, I decided that it is not enough that the symbols on the Seder plate just remind us that we were once slaves. We should also have something symbolizing the fact that people are enslaved around the world today. I chose the onion for several reasons – but the main one is just that the onion is a basic but non-noticed ingredient of many food-stuff just as those that are exploited/ abused/ enslaved are the ones who hold up the economy, but remain unseen…

So: the humble onion, which also represents the layers involved in modern slavery. And By making us cry, hopefully, it prompts us to acknowledge the millions of enslaved workers, including, children, who make the products we use every day

Putting olives on the Seder plate brings the issue of acknowledging injustice into the arena of Jewish life. As I put it in the Haggadah supplement:

Sadly, in recent years, the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers has been destroying the hope of a just peace between two peoples whose roots in the land that divides them are deeper even than those of the most ancient olive tree.

The olives on the Seder plate remind us that we cannot celebrate our ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt without acknowledging that today the Palestinian people are not yet free.

I learnt about the red chilli on the Seder plate from Lianna Etkind, a young woman who grew up in Liberal Judaism. Lianna emailed me two weeks ago about Extinction Rebellion Jews and their campaign against climate change. Extinction Rebellion Jews have issued an invitation this Pesach:[20]

The UN IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] say we have 12 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°. Even half a degree more will be disastrous for people, animals and the environment.

At your Seder place a chilli pepper on the plate to remind us of the burning earth. As we tell the Pesach story and consider our current liberation struggles, let us open ourselves to the signs of the climate catastrophe, and find inspiration to take action.

I found out about putting shoelaces on the Seder plate, when I opened an email a few days ago from Tikkun, the Network of Spiritual Progressives in the United States.[21] Shoelaces are a reminder of the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. The person who has come up with the idea is a certain Rabbi David Leipziger Teva. Reflecting on the anti-immigration policy generated by the Trump administration, he explains:

In thinking about the 92,607 migrants and refugees who in March of 2019 alone were detained after crossing the US Mexico border, I was struck by the fact that one of the first things that our US Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP) does is force these tired and vulnerable people to remove their shoelaces. Apparently, anything, even the shoelaces of young children, considered “nonessential and potentially lethal” is confiscated. How ironic, distasteful and shameful that such an inexpensive, low tech and highly efficient piece of string that guided these migrants through deserts and rivers must be personally unlaced and surrendered to a tax payer funded USCBP agent.

So: five symbols of our broken world to add to the Seder plate. As we immerse ourselves in the story of our ancestors this Pesach by eating the unleavened bread that is both ‘the bread of affliction’[22] and the bread of freedom,[23] may the orange and the onion, the olives, the red chilli and the shoelaces remind us to challenge the forces of oppression and destruction in our own time. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

15th Nissan 5779 – 20th April 2019

  1. Sh’mot, Exodus 1:8-22.

  2. Ex. 2:1-3.

  3. Ex. 2:7-9.

  4. Ex. 2:10.

  5. B’shallach, Ex. 15:20-21.

  6. Pin’chas, Numbers 26:56.

  7. Sh’mot, Ex. 2:11-12.

  8. Ex. 2:15-22.

  9. Ex. 3:1-3.

  10. Ex. 3: 4-4:20.

  11. Va-eira, Ex. 6:9.

  12. Ex 8:18. After the first three plagues of blood, frogs and lice, the Israelites dwelling in the region of Goshen were protected from the plague of flies and next five plagues.

  13. Bo, Ex. 12:1-13.

  14. Ex. 12:27.

  15. Ex. 13:8.

  16. A question arises as to whether Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus would have been at the gathering in B’nei Brak because he had been excommunicated by the other rabbis for his very singular opinions (Baba Metzia 59b). So, it is possible that the Haggadah passage is describing an idealised reunion. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the rabbis would have come together, despite the differences between them, provoked by the Emperor Hadrian’s decision to build a pagan temple in Jerusalem and rename the city Aelia Capitolina (Axelrod, Alan. Little-Known Wars of Great and Latin and Impact. Fair Winds Press, 2009). See also: The Second Jewish Revolt: The Bar Kochba War, 132-136 by Menahem Mor. Brill Reference Library of Judaism, 2016. For a brief account of the Bar Kochba Revolt, see Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience In History by Robert M Seltzer, pp. 248-249. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1980.

  17. This story also inspired the title of Rebecca Alpert’s book, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (Columbia University Press, New York, 1997).

  18. From Anita Silvert, a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook, USA http://www.juf.org/news/world www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com. Anita Silvert adds: “It wasn’t a navel orange; it had to have seeds to symbolize rebirth, renewal. And spitting out the seeds reminds us to spit out the hatred and ostracization of LGBT people in our community, and others who feel prejudice’s sting. The orange is segmented, not fragmented. Our community has discrete segments, but they form a whole. The symbolism of the orange may have expanded, but its origins are clearly from a desire to liberate an entire segment of our community from their painful mitzrayim – ‘narrow’ place.”

  19. Nicky Lachs’ explanation is included in the BHPS Haggadah supplement

  20. See @ARJews on Facebook. See also retelling of the 10 plagues with reference to global warming and the destruction of the environment: www.facebook.com/xrjews/

  21. ‘Shoelaces on Seder plate or Easter dinner table–to remember the refugees & asylum-seekers’. Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, email 14.04.19.

  22. See: The Haggadah: Ha lachma anya di achaly avhatana b’ar’a d’mittzrayim – ‘This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt’. Apart from the Hebrew word for Egypt, the rest of the passage is in Aramaic.

  23. Unleavened bread – matzah – is considered the bread of freedom because it represents the haste in which the slaves left Egypt: They were in such a hurry that there was no time for their dough to rise (Bo, Exodus 12: 34 and 39).