KARPAS IS the vegetable or herb that represents spring time and is dipped in the salt water that represents the tears of Israelite slaves. Dipping the karpas is one of the first ritual acts of our seder, and is included in the Mah Nishtanah. The dipping of the vegetable originated with the Romans, who were first to introduce one of our favourite kiddush fares: the crudité dipped into hummus. There is some confusion over what constitutes karpas. In my family, we use parsley: others, radishes or even beetroot.
Clearly the vegetable is important but I am more intrigued by its twin, the salt water. Water is a powerful theme in the haggadah. But the water has anomalies. We cross the Red Sea, but on dry land, as the water is held back, in a way that defies natural law. Mitzrayim, according to the Midrash, means “tight place” and is referred to as the birth canal, with the water of the Red Sea representing the amniotic fluid through which we are born anew as a people. However, we are born as a people through the water that does not rush, as does amniotic fluid, but through water that is withheld. Our national birth is through a dry birth canal.
In modern times, many have added a Cos Miriam to the seder table. Cos Miriam is a cup of wat e r , which repres e n t s the midrashic w e l l o f sweet wat e r w h i c h followed the Israelites through the wilderness. The well is attributed to Miriam because of her prophetic abilities, and her courage in leading the women across the Red Sea with joy and singing. In contrast to the sweet water of the Cos Miriam, we dip our karpas into bitter water.
The contrast between sweet, life-giving water and bitter salty tears points to one of the important messages of the haggadah. Although the seder is a celebration, the waters remind us that life is not easy. We get tossed by the waves of daily life and crisis. Bitter and sweet experiences share the same hours. Perhaps that is why we lean during the seder. We lean near the one sitting next to us, not just for freedom’s sake, but to encourage us to lean on each other while we metaphorically drink both bitter and sweet waters in our lives. RABBI MARCIA PLUMB Southgate Reform Synagogue