Pesach will soon be over. When Shabbat ends, the special dishes will be packed away again for another year together with the memories of this year’s Seders. Before that happens I’d like to take [at least] one look back at the Haggadah.
‘On all other nights we don’t dip at all; on this night we dip twice,’ says the third of the Four Questions. It’s one which we rarely pause to answer.
The original version probably read that on all other nights we dip any number of times, because the ancient custom was to eat by dipping one’s bread or pitta into a communal dish. Once it became the practice to use individual plates, the wording was changed.
Everyone knows about the first dip: it’s the parsley in the salt water, to represent the tears of the oppressed. But what about the second? I conducted a small survey; the majority view was that it refers to when we put a finger in our wine and remove a drop for each of the Ten Plagues in token of our awareness that, while they brought deliverance to us, they entailed terrible suffering for the Egyptian people. It’s an inventive response, but not correct.
The second dipping is when we dip the maror, or bitter herbs, into the sweet paste of the charoset. The Talmud explains that this is to diminish their sharpness, because eating unassuaged maror could be a health risk. A large amount of truly bitter herbs might even finish a person off. Regrettably, we are then instructed to shake off any charoset which might remain clinging to our maror, before we chew the latter thoroughly and on its own.
I realise I wrote about this briefly before Pesach, but the meaning of this apparently abstruse ritual engages me. In fact, I’m involved in it, or witness it, almost every day. Charoset, at least according to the mediaeval commentators, was made of foods mentioned in The Song of Songs, the great Biblical love song recited on the final day of Pesach (this coming Shabbat). These include apples, dates, figs and nuts; cinnamon and spices; and, of course, wine. One senses that a different meaning has overtaken the earlier tradition that charoset represents the mud or mortar used by the Children of Israel to make bricks at their taskmaster’s behest, or the straw they were forced to gather when Pharaoh redoubled his measure of oppression. Instead it has become the food of love, of solidarity in the face of cruelty and persecution.
This then is what the second dipping says to me. The person who suffers alone has no one to help take away the sharp edge of their sorrow’s pain. The person who has loving family, friends, or community around them must still absorb their sorrows. No one can or should relieve another of the need to come to terms with their experiences, happy or sad.
But the person surrounded by friendship has companions in which his or her anguish can be ‘dipped’. It doesn’t take the pain away; but in the words of the Talmud it may ‘remove the poison’. When others care for us, we have greater strength and understanding with which to digest our sorrows and our fears.
The Talmud discusses whether having charoset, which, unlike maror and matzah, is not mentioned at all in the Torah, constitutes a mitzvah. Is it commanded, or simply an optional adornment, a nice additional recipe? The conclusion appears to be that it is indeed a mitzvah. And what mitzvah is greater than helping form communities of friendship and care, attentiveness and prayer, ritual and presence, through which we sustain one another in our struggles and sing together in our joy?