My grandmother always set a beautiful Passover table. The linen was crisp and the glasses sparkled. A plate of matzoh, unleavened bread, covered with an embroidered cloth, graced the table. So did a tray of vegetables reserved for young stomachs. My grandfather presided over the service from the head of the table, with Gramma at the other end, close to the kitchen. In the center of the table sat the seder plate with its crimson and gold border, and in its centre, at the heart of all the finery, sat the shank bone.
The bone was brown from where Gramma burned it. Bits of sinew stuck to the knobby end; the other had been hacked clean by the butcher. It was, all in all, an unseemly centerpiece to our Passover table.
Even as a young child, I understood the role the shank bone played in the story of the Exodus: the Israelites daubed blood on their door posts to ward off the Angel of Death on that longest night, and it was the “zroah n’tuyah,” the “outstretched arm” of God, reaching into Egypt to pull us to freedom, in keeping with the four promises: “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with extraordinary judgments. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am you God” (Exodus 6:6-7).
In my child-mind, the shank bone transformed into the eagle’s wing on which God lifted us up, out, and into freedom. Although the symbolism worked for me then, it no longer does. How can such a paltry, punished bone symbolize God’s might? If not God’s, then whose “arm” does the shank bone represent?
When I sat down at my own Passover table this year and noticed the shank bone, I did not see God’s “hand” reaching out to free us. Instead, the bone reminds me of the other half of that grasp — our own enslaved hands reaching up towards freedom.
The charred, chopped, and chipped bone at the heart of the Passover seder now represents the desperate hands of the oppressed, burnt out, and anguished. It will be the hand of she who lives in hope, of he who pulls himself into freedom. It will be the symbol of those who are today as my people, the Jewish people, once were: trapped and in need.
The punished bone is not the hand of the helper, but rather the hand of the one in need of help.
Let it be known to those of us who eat our “Feast of Freedom” off linen table cloths and silver cutlery: many in the world are still trapped in a life of misery. Their liberation has not yet come. The shank bone that sits so incongruously on our china dinnerware should spur us to make meaningful commitments to those who reach out for help.
“I will free you” — to those who live in poverty.
“I will deliver you” — to those who suffer from physical ailments.
“I will redeem you” — to those who struggle with emotional distress.
“I will take you to be My people” — to those who endure political oppression.
In this way, the four ancient promises acquire contemporary significance, and we acknowledge that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people, that no one is fully free until all are free. We — former slaves who now sit on cushioned seats — are the embodiment of hope for so many in the world today.
Let us extend our hands to those who reach out for help. Passover is the true “Festival of Freedom” when we, by our commitments and actions, make it so.
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his “Rabbi Dean Shapiro” page on Facebook.