Last shabbat I shared some about the seders that I have led in prisons. As we enter Shabbat HaGadol, the great shabbat preceding Passover, I wanted to zoom in and share one specific moment from one specific seder at that same facility.
I remember it was a cold early spring day and we had been reclining on a blanket. The makings of a seder picnic were laid before us. We had shared 4 cups of juice and dipped strands of parsley in salt water. When sang a few familiar songs, Dayenu and Who Knows One. I remember that there really wasn't a proper meal. But we did manage to have a hunt for the Afikomen. I doubt any of the men were full. But it had been a very tasty and joyful break from business as usual.
Then the guard called, our time had unexpectedly (which was usual) come to an end. Quickly we began packing up the seder left overs. As we did this, some of the men asked if they could take stuff back to their rooms - they crammed packets of salt and hard boiled eggs into their jumpsuit pockets. They scooped haroseth into their mouths and gulped down grape juice. And then just as I was going to pack up the remaining bunch of parsley, Zo (one of my regular students) stopped me and asked if he could have it. "Sure," I said, almost skeptical. And as I handed it to him, I could feel it was as though I had handed him gold. Fresh, green and leafy. He looked at me and said, "This is medicine." This was perhaps the only fresh green vegetable he would eat. It was raw and alive and full of flavor.
As a child I looked forward to dipping karpas (parsley) in salt-water. It was refreshing. But as an adult I came to think that there were better vegetables. I started boiling potatoes and slicing carrots, all of which can be used in place of karpas because they require the same blessing over fruit of the earth. But then I had this exchange with Zo. And he called me to a greater awareness for food that is alive; for parsely's connection to rebirth and its healing powers. This has forever transformed my relationship to karpas.
To quote the Love and Justice Haggadah:
"Long before the struggle upward begins,
there is tremor in the seed.
roots reach down and grab hold.
The seed swells, and tender shoots push up
This is karpas: spring awakening growth.
A force so tough
it can break stone."
On the heals of this Shabbat HaGadol, as we begin cleaning for Passover and seder planning, as Spring emerges and the snow melts off the daffodils, may we open to the the power of karpas, to help us break free and move toward the light. May otherwise mundane herbs become symbols of the great freedom that we long for.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.