When we sit around the Seder table next week we will have the opportunity to retell the story of the Exodus-of our spiritual ancestors’ oppression of slavery in Egypt and the liberation brought by Moses, culminating in the passing through the Red Sea and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But we are not just retelling the story, we are reliving it, though the eating of symbolic foods, in order, through the ceremony.
The Seder Plate is the repository of most of these symbolic foods. (The matza–unleavened bread–gets its own special place.) On the Seder plate are the greens to symbolize spring, the bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of oppression, the haroset to symbolize the mortar of hard labor, the roasted shankbone (or beets for vegetarians) to symbolize the Pesach sacrifice and the placement of blood on the lintels (to protect against the plague of the death of the first born). And the egg.
The egg is ostensibly there to represent the korban chagigah-the festival sacrifice which our ancestors would offer up in the Temple in Jerusalem. [Of the symbolic foods on the seder plate, the roasted bone and the egg are the two that are not eaten. Although many have the custom to begin the meal with a hard-boiled egg in salt water, it is not part of the order of symbolic foods eaten during the pre-meal ritual.]
This traditional explanation for the egg is interesting in that it sets the egg apart–the egg therefore is a symbol not of the story of the Exodus itself, but in how the Exodus was remembered by later generations. The egg does not represent a specific element of the Passover narrative, but represents the fact of retelling of the Passover narrative. We remember the story but we also remember the remembering of the story.
When we tell the story at Passover, time compresses. Our present and our past merge, and the story of liberation of our ancestors becomes the paradigm for liberation for our own day. The egg represents this cyclical nature of time–the past is present is future. The egg, with its round shape, is symbolic of the cycle of life at other times in our tradition as well–a traditional mourner’s meal after a funeral begins with eggs.
But there is more to the egg than that. As I mentioned last week, the use of an egg at this time of year is not exclusive to Jewish practice–witness the many Easter egg hunts which will be happening next week. The egg is the source of new life, a symbol which has universal significance.
The egg on the Seder plate took on a new significance to me since I began raising chickens. I learned that chickens don’t naturally lay eggs in the winter–they need a certain amount of light during the day and there isn’t enough during the wintertime. It is possible to trick chickens into laying all year round by putting lights in their coop, which I tried last year, but after the light kept falling down and other obstacles, I just put it aside.
So it is about this time of year, when the days get longer, that chickens start laying eggs again. Indeed, our two birds just began laying last week. And I set aside the first egg of spring to put on our Seder plate. Eggs are a symbol of spring and a sign of new life because of the cycle of the chicken.
And as chickens come out of their dormancy, so do we. Spring is about the renewal of life; we see it happening physically all around us with not only the return of the egg but the budding of plants and trees. Passover–our Spring festival–is about the spiritual renewal of life. We mark the budding of a new consciousness, a new awakening in our hearts. Eggs return, so do we.
And we, like eggs, are fragile. New life emerges from breaking the shells which constrict us, and if not handled cautiously, the premature fracture of the shells can disrupt the process.
This Passover, as we mark our communal liberation, we assess our individual liberation as well. What is your dormancy that you wish to awaken this Passover? Where do you see yourself budding? And how are you, like the egg, the delicate keeper of the potential for new life, ready to break free from a hard, yet breakable, shell?