The Redemptive Act of Crying: Why Tears Can Be More Than Salt Water on the Seder Table

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / April 11, 2024

In “The Redemptive Act of Crying: Why Tears Can Be More Than Salt Water on the Seder Table,” Rabbi Ilana explores how Passover may resonate this year, the role of karpas (traditionally, leafy greens dipped in salt water) on the Seder plate, and the power of lingering in moments accompanied by tears.

A seder table in sunlight.

Passover will be hard this year, to say the least. For some, there will be empty seats that previously would have been or presently-should-be occupied by loved ones at their seder tables. For many others, feelings of deep sadness and concern over the immense loss of life experienced by Israelis and Palestinians (and its painful reverberations there and around the world) over the past half year will likely find their way into our Passover seders.  

And so they should. The famous instruction of the Passover haggadah – “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they had left Egypt –” tells us to engage with the meaning of the Exodus, and its messages about liberation from hardship, in our lives and in our world today. 

But, here’s the problem as I see it: to what end? Or rather, to what end this year? Usually, my approach to the seder is to look for new insights from the haggadah and subsequent seder discussions about what it takes to actualize the dignity and joy of true freedom in all the ways we and others need it. This year, I’m worried that too many of us, myself included, will be tempted to look for easily accessible wisdom that too simplistically maps onto current events. And, we may view the seder’s texts and rituals solely as content for political analysis at the risk of skipping an often overlooked step in the seder: crying. 

To be honest, I’ve only cried once at a seder many years ago, still devastated over a recent breakup (and I did so quietly, hiding behind my haggadah!). I’ve seen people tear up over having lost someone in the year that passed, but never have I seen the explicit embrace of sobbing at a Passover seder, even though we dip leafy greens into salt water (during the karpas section) as a way to remember the Israelites’ crying from their suffering in Egypt. 

I know that literal crying won’t be helpful or accessible to everyone. Perhaps you feel like you’ve cried enough already. Maybe you’re not a crier. Maybe you think that the time for crying is over and something else, something more actionable is needed. Maybe you’re afraid of feeling awkward. That is all valid. However, I still believe crying is way more central to Passover than we might realize, and that we should try our best to make space for it at our seders.

In one of the earliest rabbinic conversations about how Jews should tell the story of the Exodus, the rabbis say, “One begins with degradation and ends with praise” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4). This is more than the simple instruction to tell a chronological story of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt. It’s an instruction to tell the hardest parts of the story when we might be tempted to skip them. What the rabbis were saying is that there can be no genuine redemption, no genuine healing or celebration without first acknowledging the causes of our sadness, despair, and pain. 

This notion is present in the Book of Exodus, too: A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their shriek for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25). 

This description of the Israelites’ plight uses four different Hebrew verbs associated with tears: anacha (“groaning”), za’aka (“crying out”), shav’a (“shrieking”), and na’aka (“moaning”). Commentators across the centuries have noted the significance of the Torah’s emphasis on crying, most notably the detail that this act was what finally got God’s attention after hundreds of years in harsh servitude. 

What’s perplexing about this part of the narrative is that it took so long for liberation to come. The Israelites were obviously in need of help long before this collective cry erupted. Why did God need them to cry first? Isn’t that cruel? And, is it really possible that the Israelites didn’t cry any earlier in their history of enslavement? These are questions our sages grappled with, too. 

One line of thinking offered by 19th century commentator, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, is that the Israelite crying in Exodus is how “an inchoate groan of pain becomes a protest, an interrogation of God: what will be the end of this?” (in HaAmek Davar translation from Dr. Aviva Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture, page 33). Crying here is seen as the process of turning one’s feeling of pain into either a newfound or renewed call for change. Crying is a means by which the Israelites tapped into their collective psyche, understood what was needed, and only then God “knew,” which is Torah-speak for “intimately understood.” 

Various other, mainly Hasidic commentators, similarly focused on the “redemptive effect” of this crying (Zornberg, p 33). Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, known as the Mei HaShiloach, went as far as to say that God causes people to cry to “show one the root of one’s lack, so that one sees that all the complexity of one’s needs is rooted in this basic lack. And God gives one the power of prayer, of crying out…to rage to God about it.” (translation from Zornberg, 34). That’s all to say that crying, however surface-level it may seem, comes from an incredibly powerful emotional source and has a lot of wisdom for us. 

Crying is therefore the outcome of serious internal searching that bravely admits the roots of one’s grief. It is acknowledging the realities of what or who we don’t have in our lives. It is only then – after that recognition – that we can move to another place, toward clarity, action, and constructive next steps. 

The symbols of the seder plate, the food items we taste throughout the evening of the seder, are more than culinary props. They are our emotional guides as we try to embody, in our own time, that experience of the ancient Israelite who was able to move “m’avdut l’cheirut –” from slavery to freedom. To say we know the tears of oppression just by dipping leafy greens or other vegetables into salt water is on its surface, absurd. Like God who only “knew” the Israelites’ tears once they were deeply expressed, knowing the root of tears, wherever they may come from, requires real listening to ourselves and one another. Dipping greens in salt water is our ceremonial catalyst into a mode of expression that moves us from our heads into our hearts. 

This year, I wonder what would happen if we were less afraid to tear up and linger on our tears as we eat our parsley dipped in salt water. If tears aren’t accessible, or truly aren’t where you are, then what would it look like to honor and talk about the tears you and others have cried in the past? We know that the seder will still continue with its sweeter foods, songs of praise, eventful afikoman-hunting, lively conversation, and ultimately, the very real promise of redemption. 

To help center the meaning of the tears of the karpas ritual at your seder, consider adding a reading (like the verses from Exodus above) or a go-around question before the dipping commences like: “If your tears could speak, what would they say?” or “What did you need to cry over this year?” 

Below is a poem by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld that I’ll be bringing to my own seder guests this year.

One of the most courageous things we can do then is give ourselves and one another the chance to genuinely and gently, move from degradation to praise. This crying may just present us with a knowing so honest, and so real, it forms the basis of a liberation we have yet to experience.

The entire seder is an invitation to taste the tears and hopes of our ancestors. To hold them close. To know that we have been here before. We have been in narrow places and we have left them behind. We have stumbled suddenly upon wide open places, possibilities opening within us, before us. Karpas is the first taste. Take your tears. Take mine. Take all the tears. Go back as far as you can. Put them in a bowl. Pass them around the table. Don’t let them become a bottomless well of grief. Dip, don’t drown. A voice beckons: Mother, Father, Lover, Friend. Tender, trembling slightly. Darling, don’t forget. Not all hope has to be hard-earned. Sometimes it just comes. If you let it. Winter ends. Blossoms reappear. Birds return. Love rises again. So will you.

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