A Tomato on the Seder Plate

The Seder plate at Joseph Edelheit’s home, including oranges, olives, and tomatoes.

For the second year in a row, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit graciously invited Courtney, the kids, and me to share in his family Seder dinner for Passover. It was a wonderful experience.

There are longstanding, traditional elements on a Seder plate, including maror, charoset, karpas, z’roa, and beitzah. We had all of those.

But one of the things that I like most about the traditions of Passover is that they are open to change and modification, at least in the Edelheit home. Last year, he added an orange to the plate, to show solidarity with women and GLBT persons.

This year, he added two elements. One was tomatoes, in solidarity with migrant workers who work in near-slavery in America:

Over the last few years, the issues of actual slavery (estimates of people working today as slaves in the world today range between 12 and 27 million) and workers’ rights (many, like the tomato pickers in Florida, are said to work in near-slavery conditions) have achieved greater visibility in parts of the Jewish community. Especially at Passover, the holiday that commemorates the ancient Hebrews’ freedom from slavery. Individual seder leaders, and organizations like RHR (which produces an “anti-slavery” Haggadah supplement and table cards that contain stories of modern-day slavery), Boston’s Workmen’s Circle branch and Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, Mass., have incorporated reminders of farm workers’ rights into their seder readings.

This year the tomato — along with words of accompanying text — becomes the latest symbolic food officially added to some seder tables.

RHR and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (the central labor representative of agricultural workers “in low-wage jobs” in Florida) this week announced that they are urging Jewish homes to put a tomato on their seder plate.

Of course, this reminded me of my friend, Brian McLaren, who has been fighting for the rights of Immokalee workers in Florida for several years.

But the other element on the plate really took my breath away.

Joseph, a vocal Zionist, put olives on the plate. The olives were a sign of repentance for how the Israelis have treated Palestinians, including the bulldozing of ancient olive trees for the construction of Jewish settlements. This statement was read, including this:

I bring this commitment to the Seder by including an olive on my Seder plate. The olive tree is a universal and ancient symbol of hope and peace. And sadly, the destruction of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli settlers and the Israeli army is just one example of the way that Israeli policies systematically deny Palestinians of even their most basic rights.

In February, I spent a day in the Palestinian village of Jayyous. I saw with my own eyes where ancient olive trees had been recently torn from the land. I saw the Caterpillar bulldozer that had ripped them from their roots, with its owner in tears nearby. And I saw pictures of where the stolen olive trees had been prettily replanted in a nearby settlement.

An olive on my Seder plate reminds me to ask myself, as Rabbi Brant Rosen, co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, writes: “How will we, as Jews, bear witness to the unjust actions committed in our name? Will these olives inspire us to be bearers of peace and hope for Palestinians — and for all who are oppressed?”

Maybe it was just me, but I sensed some awkwardness in the family. Here they were, praying for their “enemies,” and on their holiest day. It was really astounding. It made me wonder how many American Christian families will pray for the peace of Islam on Easter Sunday. Very few, I’m guessing.

I was challenged at the Seder, and I pass that on to my fellow Christians: How can we seek peace, even in uncomfortable ways, in this holiest season?

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