a seder plate with shank, egg, maror, haroset, parsley and and orange
(File photo)

Shankbone, matzah and maror had special significance this year

Every year we ask the same question Passover: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year our seder was different because instead of the Passover story happening long ago, elements of it are happening today.

I have lived a fortunate middle-class life; I have never experienced slavery or a plague, and the reminiscing about the Hebrews’ suffering has been a luxury. All of these years of intellectual discourse about the 10 Plagues left me unprepared emotionally and physically to get through one. I never considered what I would do if the story of Passover repeated itself in my life. But this year, I could not help but see that the symbols of the Passover seder were not just inert objects on the seder plate, but symbols of real events happening around us.

We did not want to call out, “Let all who are hungry come and eat” in case they might carried the sickness with them. We didn’t even want to invite Elijah in to drink from his cup.

This year, our meal was possible because someone took the risk of bringing the food home from the grocery store, and because of the risk many took to get that food to the store to sell it to us. This year, as we discussed the suffering of the Hebrew slaves, we were reminded that the backbone of our world is the labor force, and that they are vulnerable at this time.

A Passover seder is not complete without discussing three symbols: pesach (shankbone), matzah and maror (bitter herb).

The pesach or zeroa is a symbol of shelter, a shankbone or beet that represents the sacrifice, drawn in blood, on the doorposts of the houses to save us from the Tenth Plague, the Angel of Death. This year it represented our sheltering in place to protect ourselves from this silent sickness.

Normally, the matzah is a piece of unleavened bread, a symbol of freedom. The Hebrews were in such a hurry to race to freedom that they did not have time to let their bread rise before they left. This year, the unleavened bread symbolized how we had done too little too late. We saw the signs of a pandemic, and yet our country disregarded the warnings. Even when our country declared a national emergency, people still gathered and spread the sickness.

Lastly, the maror is the bitter herb on the seder plate. It symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. We eat the bitter herbs after the matzah because you cannot appreciate the bitterness of oppression unless you have tasted freedom. Like many, I have been privileged enough to taste a great deal of freedom. I have health insurance, and I have the freedom of knowing when my next paycheck will come. I have tasted the freedom of depending on our labor force without thoughts about how the government is taking care of them. We are finally seeing the hidden health implications our racism, economic inequality and free market have fostered.

This year’s seder night was different than all others because at this year’s seder we knew what it feels like to have to take shelter, we tasted what it is like to be unprepared and we tasted the bitter helplessness of our situation.

As of this year, Passover will mean more than just symbols on a seder plate — it will be a memory of our own suffering, a reminder of how to prepare for a plague. Stay clean, shop early, and keep your family close to avoid the emotional toll of isolation. At the end of the story, the bitterness is dipped in sweetness, and so that is something we can all look forward to.

Ilana Cartun Tunca
Ilana Cartun Tunca

Ilana Cartun Tunca is a doctor of physical therapy practicing in the San Diego area. She was born and raised in Palo Alto, and was a member of Congregation Etz Chayim.