How is this night different from all other nights? This classic inquiry, which opens the Four Questions recited at the Passover Seder focuses on how that meal differs from all other festive family dinners, let alone the regular ones. But how it does so is not the only question upon which to focus at the Seder.
In fact, the more questions and the more conversation about those questions, the better. It’s when we depart from the inherited script of the Haggadah, adding our own questions and answers, that we really emulate the sages who crafted the original Seders of millennia past.
Novelty is one of the Seders oldest traditions. And one way to keep your Seder fresh is by asking not only how this night is different from all others, but also asking how this year Pesach is different from all other Passovers of years past.
This year, that might include asking how we celebrate the “green shoots of recovery” which we hear are sprouting even as many people are still experiencing real economic challenges. Of course, seeing the green shoots of recovery from any crisis; be it economic, personal or communal is always a challenge. It requires that we remain fully aware of the trauma from which we want to recover, while being open to the signs that the recovery has in fact begun. I imagine that was very much the challenge faced by our ancestors as they celebrated the first Pesach while still in Egypt.
How did they, and how can we, balance the optimism and confidence which we need in order to move forward in our lives, with the realism which allows us to learn from the past and avoid repeating its mistakes? The green vegetable on our Seder plates, the karpas, can actually help us to do just that.
Karpas is an ancient practice which nurtures the kind of clear-eyed optimism we so badly need today and must have animated the hearts of our ancestors more than 3,500 years ago. Long before Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke of “green shoots,” the custom of eating a green vegetable at the Seder helped us identify signs of renewal, while remaining fully aware of the damage not yet repaired and the long list of challenges which still lay ahead.
By dipping the greens in saltwater, a reminder of the tears we shed in Egypt, we acknowledge that we are still not fully liberated. But whether we use parsley, potatoes or something else, that bit of vegetable dipped in saltwater and eaten at the beginning of the Seder celebrates the green shoots of our freedom, even thought the story of liberation has barely begun.
We always have a choice about how to view the events of our lives and our world — about how to “season” our understanding of them, much as we season the karpas with saltwater, in addition to the bitter herbs which we season by dipping in the sweet mixture of fruit and nuts called Haroset.
When we take the greens, celebrating the renewal which they promise, we do so with full awareness that things are far from perfect. When we eat the bitter herbs, acknowledging the brokenness and difficulties which we still face, we recall that we can sweeten even the bitterest experiences with that which we create. In each case, we combine the hard truth about the way things “really are” or “really were” with the big truth that things will get better and that we have the power to help them do so.
This year, as you pass the karpas around the table, ask yourself and those around you where you can each identify signs of renewal. They may be the tiniest shoots, and they may be in your personal lives, in the life of your family, in the Jewish people or across America, but they all count.
As you dip the vegetable in the saltwater, consider the challenges that remain and those who are yet able to participate in the renewal and recovery symbolized by the greens you are about to eat.
As you eat, invite people to suggest things that we can do to nurture the shoots of recovery which are already sprouting, whether personal, communal or national. And take a moment to reflect on what can be done for those not yet experiencing those shoots.
This simple practice can unlock the doors of cynicism without succumbing to a bit of naiveté. Try it and see. It is a wonderful way to cultivate hope, liberate yourself, and help do the same for others. Throw in a little gratitude for wonderful things past and present and you have figured out the purpose of Passover.