The traditional symbols of Passover serve as tools to help us to remember and recreate different aspects of the Passover story. This year, each symbol takes on new meaning as we also use them to tell the story of our criminal justice system.
(Designate a volunteer at each table to hold up or point to each symbol as it is explained)
Matzah: The matzah is the central symbol of Passover. It is the bread of contradictions; representing both the pitiful lifestyle of our slavery and the excitement and rush of our journey to freedom. Tonight, our matzah also represents contradictions: the joy and relief of completing a sentence, and then the harsh reality of facing the prejudice and second-class citizenship that our society inflicts upon people with criminal records.
Maror: The maror, or bitter herb, symbolizes the bitterness of an Egyptian slavery that was physically grueling and morally demeaning. Tonight, the maror still represents bitterness: the bitterness of despair that faces many low-income Americans when they are forced to choose between feeding their family and staying out of the dangerous and illegal drug trade.
Karpas: The karpas, or green vegetable, symbolizes the hope and promise that the coming of spring brings. Tonight our karpas symbolizes the promise that criminal justice reform and family-sustaining employment brings to people with criminal records and their families.
Haroset: Haroset is a sweet mixture of fruit and nuts that represents the mortar made by the Israelite slaves during their service in Egypt. Tonight the powdery ground nuts in our Haroset remind us of the failed war on drugs that keeps so many members of our community behind bars.
Zeroah: The zeroah symbolizes the Passover sacrifice, and is often represented by a roasted shank bone or beet. Tonight the zeroah reminds us of the sacrifices of those in our community who have defied statistics, prejudice, and stigma to secure employment.
Betzah: The betzah, or roasted egg, represents the cycle of life. Tonight we remember a different cycle, that facing people in impoverished neighborhoods who grow up with few alternatives to the underground economy. When our neighbors are convicted and put into our criminal justice system they face the continuation of this cycle, as the stigma against hiring those with criminal records forces them to return to the illegal employment that first led to their convictions.
Orange: The orange is a modern addition to the seder plate. Scholar Susannah Heschel introduced it in the 1980s to symbolize the fruitfulness of communities that give full roles to women, queer Jews, and others who were marginalized in Jewish communities in the past. The orange reminds us that our Passover traditions are not only about remembering the past; they can and should also speak to today’s struggles.
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