Salty, Sweet, Bitter, and Savory
The Haggadah is filled with the number four. Four cups of wine, four questions, four children. The fours are rooted in classical midrashic interpretations of the verses in the Torah that tell of the Exodus, as well as the inevitable questions that each generation of Jewish children have asked at the Passover seder: Why is this night different? Why do we do this? Why do we sing these unusual songs, act out these unusual rites, and especially why do we eat these unusual foods?
Other than the haggadah itself, the entire ritual symbolism of the seder table is played out in food and its varied flavors. Every one of our four questions has to do with food, and there seems to be a sense (pun intended) that food can convey a powerful message to those at our festival table.
Scientists describe another four – four primary flavors: salty, sweet, bitter, and savory. All tastes can be broken down to one of these four, or a combination of them. Perhaps this is not different for us on seder night than the four children. Each Jew, and indeed, the Jewish people as a whole, can be broken down into one of the four types. Perhaps we can also say that each person can have the flavor of one of the seder’s symbolic foods.
First, of course, must be sweet. We begin with sweet wine and one of the first things we do is to say Kiddush. Life is sweet. People can be sweet. We all have known some small and some significant sweetness, shown to us by our parents, family, teachers, friends, and care givers. Technically, you don’t have to have sweet wine for kiddush, any kosher for Passover wine will do. Choose your preferred vintage but start your seder by recalling life’s sweetness.
Our first food at the seder is like our first experience as young infant. We dip the newborn green growth into salt water to recall the salty tears we cried at the time of our national (and individual) birth. How profound, that life begins with tears, and at our seder we must acknowledge that life is filled tears. As young children, we cry nearly every day, and many shed tears at life’s end.
We can not only sit at the seder table with happy people. We must also welcome the tears of those who need our support, and even to shed some tears (and spill some sweetness from our wine cup) for those who might be our enemies. Not everyone is sweet. Some are like salt in our wounds. But at the seder table we make room for those who suffer, friend and stranger alike. Let ALL who are hungry come and eat.
The Exodus teaches so many lessons, but underneath them all is the reality of slavery – centuries of oppression and cruelty. Life can be bitter. This is even deeper than just tears, and cuts to the heart of the darkness of the human spirit. One person’s inhumanity to another, and the bitterness this evil inclination sows, are part of the tragic recollection we experience at the seder. Again, we blend our flavors, a little maror with a little charoset, but never denying the bitter people who share life with us.
And finally, the meal. It’s what everyone has been waiting for. The savory. There is no other word for it. Savory. Filled with flavor and speaking of fulfillment. A sumptuous meal shared with the fullness of spirit that motivates every seder gathering. You just know the deep satisfaction that come from feeling full and free and liberated from the needs of the hour. We have cried and rejoiced and grieved, and now . . . we recline and indulge in the smells and flavors of Pesach.
Chag Kasher v’sameach,
Wishing you a kosher and joyful Passover,
Rabbi Hillel Norry