Courtesy of Congregration Rodfei Sholom
March 15, 2021
The first seder the Jews conducted was in Egypt, on the eve of the 15th of Nissan, the night before they departed from Egypt. Moses instructed the Jewish people to eat during that seder roasted lamb or goat, together with matzos and maror (bitter herbs).
Why did they eat maror on that first Passover night? Rashi explains:
G-d commanded them to eat maror to remember that the Egyptians embittered their lives.
This seems silly. I can understand that now, in 2021, we are instructed to eat bitter herbs to remember the bitter pain our ancestors endured in Egypt. But for the first generations of Jews, who experienced the Egyptian exile, whose infants were plunged in the Nile, who were beaten and tortured, who suffered unbearable agony and bitterness—they needed to eat bitter herbs, horseradish, to remember the pain?
Imagine telling newly liberated Holocaust survivors in 1945 to remember the horrors they just witnessed. They just lived through a nightmare. It would be impossible for them not to remember. (This is on an individual level. On a national level, it would seem that unfortunately, it is very possible to forget the lessons learned through the tragedy of the Holocaust and what we need to do as a people to make sure that “never again” doesn’t just become a hollow once a year refrain). And if the Jews in Egypt did forget the horrors would that be so bad. Couldn’t G-d just let the people move on from Egypt and all they associated with it. Have a fresh start to their new lives. Why is there a mitzvah to remember the pain?
One of the answers is this. The mitzvah to eat the maror is what allowed the Jews to become free.
When people experience pain, they often react in one of two ways: Some people repress it; others become defined by it. Some people don’t talk; they don’t want to face the pain. It remains etched in the depth of their psyche, paralyzing them unconsciously. Others do not stop talking about it. It becomes the sole focus of their life. Bad things people might have done to you completely occupy your mental space. Disappointments, challenging experiences, and difficult moments become your defining reality. Both paths are understandable, but we are capable of more. And that is the secret of the maror.
When G-d instructed that generation of Jews to eat maror on the night of the seder, He was sharing with them the Jewish way of dealing with all types of disappointments and painful experiences in life: Designate a time and space to eat it, to look at it, to deal with it, to choke over it, to cry for it, to feel the pain. But do not let it become the focus of your entire life, and swallow up your future and destiny. The Jews leaving Egypt, by eating maror, objectified their pain, meaning they transformed it into an important reality that they could look at, feel, study and learn from. But it did not become their entire reality. They were a free people. Otherwise, they would have left the Land of the Pharaohs, but the Pharaoh would have not left them.
This is the wisdom behind what our Sages did when they instituted Shivah after the death of a relative. It is a set time to mourn, grieve and be present in the pain of loss. To not immediately return to our regularly scheduled lives. To not haver the immediate short-term comfort that routine and getting back into the world might bring us. To do nothing but cry at the pain, laugh at the memories, share stories and vignettes, hear from others things you never knew. And then on the seventh day to suddenly stop. And surrounded by family and community take some steps outside. The first steps towards reengaging wholly in life even though a part of you may now be missing.
Once you eat maror, then you can eat matzah and drink four cups of wine. You can say to yourself, there is also joy in my life. There may be challenges but there is so much opportunity. There may be frustrations but there is so much blessing, and perhaps I can utilize my experience to grow even more and to help others around me.
We do not ignore pain or take it lightly. We do not delegitimize human feelings. We do not say “get over it.” No, we designate a sacred space in our heart and our seder plate for the “maror.” When we eat the maror—this is our focus. We honor our feelings and experiences. And when we do that, we can say: that was the maror. And now it’s time for the matzah and the wine.
*This article is featured in the print Jewish Journal Passover edition