Friday, January 19, 2024



Passover, Arthur Szyk, 1948


By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Bitter herbs are a culinary misfit. One can fulfill the obligation to eat the bitter herbs (maror) at the Seder with many different sour and spicy vegetables, including horseradish, romaine lettuce, and chicory. But what is very strange about maror is that we eat these vegetables on their own at the Seder; as the Mah Nishtanah  exclaims, on any other night, no one would eat a bitter spoonful of horseradish straight up.

Maror was misunderstood from the very beginning. There is no clear indication in the Biblical text as to why it is included in the Seder. The Torah in Parashat Bo says the Passover sacrifice should be eaten “roasted in fire, with unleavened bread, and with bitter herbs….” While the Passover sacrifice has a direct connection to the night of the Exodus, and Matzah is connected to the haste in which the Jews left Egypt, the reader is left to imagine what purpose maror might have.


Several commentaries see maror as a way to enhance the meat of the Passover sacrifice. The Ohr HaChaim says that “it is the way of those who eat roasted meat to do so with something sharp, for this makes it tastier, and entices people to eat more.” Ibn Ezra and Ibn Kaspi offer similar interpretations. This perspective is found in the Talmud (Chullin 132b), as well. It asserts that certain offerings of meat must be eaten in “the manner of royalty”; and it explains that the manner of royalty is to eat meat “roasted and served with mustard.” 


This interpretation is closest to the simple reading of the text. The Torah wants the Passover sacrifice to represent the joy of freedom, and be eaten in a royal fashion; to do so requires that it be served with an appropriate condiment.


But the Mishnah and Passover Haggadah offer a very different perspective on maror; Rabban Gamliel says: “The reason for bitter herbs is because the Egyptians embittered our forefathers’ lives in Egypt…” Maror is interpreted as a symbol of slavery, not royalty.


David Henshke argues that Rabban Gamliel’s explanation reflects a shift that took place after the destruction of the Temple. There was no longer a Passover sacrifice; one needed a new rationale to include the bitter herbs at the Seder. Rabban Gamliel found a different symbolism in the maror, one that related to the actual suffering during slavery.


But this new understanding of maror seems strange. An evening of redemption should be filled with joy and sweetness. The point of Passover is to escape the horrors of slavery; to place bitterness at the center of the Seder plate seems to undermine Passover’s message.


Most often, answers given to this question embrace the positive side of bitterness; or to put it a bit more cynically, that “suffering is good for us.” Maror is a reminder that slavery has shaped the Jewish soul just as much as freedom.


Undoubtedly, suffering can improve us as people. Professors Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” after observing that many of their trauma patients had reinvented themselves in the aftermath of a major tragedy. They had grown in terms of their strength of character, relationships with others, perspective on life, appreciation for life, and spirituality. Their suffering had changed them for the better.


Even before post-traumatic growth was discovered by psychologists, it was evident to philosophers and theologians. Nietzsche wrote that “to those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities…,” because Nietzsche recognized that character is forged in the crucible of adversity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for a “test of suffering,” nisayon, is the same as the Hebrew word for “raising up,” nissa, because a test raises one up; the bitterness of suffering is itself the silver lining that carries other blessings.


The Sefat Emet makes a direct connection between this idea and maror. He says that “the bitterness of slavery was a preparation for redemption, and this (bitterness) remains with us during the times of redemption.” Maror reminds us that bitterness begets character, and is itself a gateway to redemption.


As I get older, I get more uncomfortable with these types of explanations. I don’t contest their truth. Yes, suffering can spur spiritual growth. And one who suffers will find the pursuit of meaning to be the best way to live with suffering; as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote, “Judaism teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.” Spiritual quests are how the soul copes with tragedy.


But what I find deeply disturbing are articles and sermons that use this difficult truth to romanticize suffering. They depict the personal growth achieved in the face of suffering as some sort of Hollywood ending that makes it all worthwhile. But it doesn’t.


The Talmud discusses an idea called “afflictions of love,” which claims that the righteous suffer unnecessarily in order to receive a greater reward in the future. After a discussion of the great reward involved, it tells real-life stories about suffering. In one, Rabbi Yochanan suffers from an illness. His colleague Rabbi Chanina visits, and asks: “Is your suffering dear to you?”; perhaps Rabbi Yochanan appreciated the spiritual glory of suffering, and wanted to continue with his afflictions. Rabbi Yochanan offered a terse response: “Neither the sufferings nor their reward.”


After a lengthy discussion of theory, the Talmud shares the real-life verdict on suffering: all the growth in the world is not worth the suffering.  Marror is always bitter, and may it stay far, far away from us, always.


So how else can one see Maror? The past few months have given me a new reflection on the passage of Rabban Gamliel. I now believe that maror reminds us that even when we can proudly sing “this year in Jerusalem,” there will still be maror on the Seder plate. Despite returning to our homeland and building a remarkable state, we cannot banish the bitter herbs. Life will always have a side portion of maror.


But the maror at the Seder is not there to sober us up and offer us cynical realism. Instead, it reminds us that maror is never the final chapter. Bitter herbs may be ever-present, but so is redemption. We simply have to get through this portion of maror and start over again. We have overcome, we can overcome, and we will overcome.


In the worst of times, Jews never gave up on redemption; and now that we have experienced a taste of redemption, we certainly cannot give up on redemption, no matter how bitter things are. 


This message was powerfully articulated in a heroic eulogy that a bereaved mother, Sarit Zussman, gave for her son, Ben, a fallen soldier. After speaking about her remarkable son and the profound love he shared with his family, she ended by speaking to the people of Israel:


"And now to you, to all of you, to all of us, to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. As a storyteller, I tell you: that our story has a happy ending. We are going to win. We have no other choice. We are a people who want to live, unlike our enemies, lowly and miserable, cowards, Nazis and their accomplices, who sanctify death. We will live, and thrive, and build...Do you hear, people of Israel? World, do you hear? Do you hear, lowly enemies who desire death and evil? Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people live, forever and ever and for all eternity, standing tall and with our heads held high…”


These moving words remind us that the true lesson of maror is that we must hold on to hope, even when it seems impossible. The Seder ends with joy, despite the maror. No matter how difficult it gets, we must hold our heads high and proudly declare: Am Yisrael Chai!

No comments: