Among the myriad customs and traditions that comprise the complex and delicious drama of the Pesach seder are two dippings: near the beginning of the seder we dip parsley into salt water, and just before the seder meal we dip maror (bitter herbs) into charoset (a sweet fruit concoction). (With love and affection to those who believe that dipping matzah into chocolate ought to be a central seder practice, I’m going to limit myself to the two more traditional dippings here.) Life often dishes out good and bad, blessings and curses, together, but at different stages of our journey toward redemption, one taste predominates over the other.
For the first dipping we drench sweet parsley in salt water. The parsley symbolizes springtime which embodies the promise of life and renewal, so central to the meaning of the story of the Exodus. Our ancestors left Egypt for a new life in the wilderness, freed from the grasp of Pharaoh, free to commit themselves to God. The salt water evokes the painful, bitter tears our ancestors shed as slaves in Egypt. When we dip parsley into salt water, we acknowledge that there are times when the promise of new life and renewal is temporarily drowned by the bitter reality that overtakes and overwhelms us. Perhaps for a time all we taste are salty tears, all we feel is the pain of slavery. In Hebrew, the name for Egypt is Mitzrayim meaning “the narrow straits.” Life imposes many narrow straits that entrap and enslave us, closing us off from the sense that life and renewal can be ours. Yet the core of the first dipping is parsley, not salt water: we say borei p’ri ha-adamah (“Creator of the fruit of the earth”), a blessing over the sweet, green parsley, not over the salt water.
For the second dipping we take up maror, the bitter herb that symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in all its manifestations – physical, political, social, psychological, emotional, spiritual – and dip it in sweet charoset. The bitterness of the maror is masked by the sweetness of the charoset. The maror is there, but we primarily taste the exquisite sweetness of charoset, made from fruits and wine, God’s bounty combined with our quintessential symbol of joy. This time, it is over the maror that we say the blessing: asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al achilat maror (“Who has made us holy through commandments and commanded us to eat the maror”).
Pesach is about redemption, about moving from a place of slavery and degradation, pain and suffering, to a place of dignity and freedom, peace and well-being. Redemption can be a transformation, a journey, or a miracle – or perhaps combine them all. It is a complex process, both for our ancestors and for us a physical and spiritual journey, often with unforeseen twists and turns along the way. In the beginning, the sweet possibility of life and renewal are barely recognizable for the tears (parsley dipped in salt water), yet down the road redemption brings a sweet taste to the tongue (maror dipped in charoset). Yet the parsley is there beneath the salty taste, and the maror is there beneath the charoset.
Life dishes out the good and the bad, the blessings and the curses together. Even in our darkest moments, God’s promise of redemption and spiritual healing exists, however elusive the taste, however difficult to experience. And after we have crossed through the Reed Sea and experienced redemption, the bitterness of where we have been stays with us as a memory, hopefully not scar tissue on our souls, but memory that increases our capacity for compassion and love.
This Pesach, let us dip twice and with each dipping savor both tastes, knowing that life is a tapestry of good and bad, but God promises that redemption and healing are possible and helps us find the route out of Mitzrayim to the wilderness.
(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman