Hol Hamoed Pessah: Different stripes

Symbolism in the Passover Seder interpreted through the lens of the story of Joseph.

By
March 29, 2013 10:22
4 minute read.
Picture from the Parasha.

Picture from the Parasha matza in oven 370. (photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)

While the Passover Seder is on our minds and taste buds, allow me to suggest an important lesson likely to be overlooked. Fascinatingly enough, alongside Moses, who is not really mentioned in the Haggada, there is another great biblical personality who plays a major role, but is likewise overlooked. This personality is Joseph, firstborn of Rachel, favored son of Jacob (Israel) and grand vizier of Egypt.

Let us start at the very beginning of the Seder. After we raise the first cup of wine and recite kiddush, we wash our hands without a blessing before eating karpas , a vegetable, usually parsley, and we make the blessing to God “Creator of the fruit of the earth.” The usual explanation is that Greco-Roman meals would generally begin with a vegetable hors d’oeuvre together with a “dip.”

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The Seder is a reclining meal reminiscent of a Greco-Roman feast and so we begin the evening with this vegetable hors d’oeuvre/dip. For us, the vegetable is also a symbol of spring; Passover is biblically called the Festival of the Spring – and the dip is generally salt water, reminiscent of the tears of the Hebrew slaves.

There is, however, an entirely different interpretation of the karpas suggested by Rashi in his commentary on the verse which mentions Joseph’s “coat of many colors” ( k’tonet pasim, Genesis 37:3).

Rashi links this to the verse in the Scroll of Esther which describes the rich embroidery of the palace of King Ahasuerus: “There were hangings of white fine linen [karpas]” (Esther 1:6). Rashi thereby identifies karpas with the Persian word that describes an expensive material or garment; the second syllable, pas , means “stripe” in Hebrew and evidently refers to an expensive material with stripes of many colors.

The karpas would therefore refer to Joseph’s coat of many colors, the gift he received from his father elevating him over his siblings and singling him out as the firstborn.

Interestingly enough, there is a custom in many Yemenite communities to dip the karpas into the haroset, a mixture of wine, nuts and sometimes dates, which the Jerusalem Talmud says is reminiscent of blood. Hence, just as the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of the goat, claiming to their father that Joseph had been torn apart by a wild beast, we dip our karpas into the haroset.

What does this have to do with Passover? The Babylonian Talmud teaches in the name of Rab: “One should never favor one child over the other children in a family. It was because of an expensive garment, costing two selaim, that Jacob gave to Joseph – more expensive than anything he had given to any of his other children – he was envied by his brothers and the issue ‘snowballed’ until our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt.”

Hence, the Seder begins by warning every leader of the family to learn from the Joseph story the importance of showing equal affection and treatment to all of one’s children so as not to engender causeless hatred and strife.

The Seder continues the Joseph story theme with the cups of wine.

Although the Babylonian Talmud links the four cups with the four (or five) expressions of redemption in the Book of Exodus (6:6-7), the Jerusalem Talmud connects the cups of wine to the four or five times the word kos (cup) appears in the butler’s dream (Genesis 40:9-13, 21). And of course Joseph’s interpretation of the butler’s dream is that he would be freed from prison and would be able to once again serve his master.

Since this source deals with freedom from slavery in Egypt and actually uses the word kos, it is certainly legitimate to see it as a source for the cups of wine that we drink in remembrance of our exodus from Egypt.

Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (known as the Vilna Gaon, 1720-1797) identifies a reference to Joseph at the very end of the Seder as well, with the Had Gadya song. He masterfully interprets “the little goat bought for two zuzim” as the goat whose blood was used to soil Joseph’s coat of many colors: Jacob “acquired” the shock he received upon seeing the bloodied cloak by virtue of the two selaim he had spent on the expensive cloak which engendered the causeless hatred of the other brothers.

In a fascinating and parallel symbolic manner, the Jewish people are also the blameless goat whom our Father in Heaven bought unto Himself with the Two Tablets of Stone, the Decalogue, He gave them at Sinai. Because of that gift, and the status of the Jewish people as the Chosen People, we have been hated throughout the generations and persecuted by cruel tyrant after cruel tyrant. And despite the causeless hatred against us, each of our attackers will be destroyed in turn until eventually even the angel of death will be destroyed by our Father in Heaven. At that time, Israel and the world will be redeemed and death will be destroyed forever.

May it be speedily and in our days.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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