My grandmother always set a beautiful Passover table. The linen was white, the glasses sparkled, and the seat cushions were covered with gold velvet. A plate of matzoh, covered with an embroidered cloth, graced the table, as did a tray of vegetables reserved for young stomachs. My grandfather presided over the seder from the head of the table, with Gramma at the other end, close to the kitchen. In the centre 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 shank 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 centrepiece to our Passover table.
Even as a young child, I understood the role the shank bone played in the story: the Israelites daubed blood on their doorposts 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 symbolise God’s might? Whose “arm” does the shank bone represent?
When I sit down at my own Passover table this year and notice the shank bone, I will not see God’s “hand” reaching out to free us. Instead, the bone will remind me of the other half of that grasp–our own enslaved hands reaching up towards freedom. The charred, chopped and chipped bone will represent 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 I once was: trapped and in need. The punished bone is not the hand of the helper, but rather the one wanting 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, God’s 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 clasp those who reach out for our help. Passover is the true Festival of Freedom when we, by our commitments and actions, make it so.
Haim, Jacob and I wish you “Pesach Samech—A Happy Passover.” May your table sparkle, may you be surrounded by loved ones, and may you make joyful memories together. And may the promise of freedom come to all who need it.