Pass the Bitter Herbs!
Seder night, such anticipation! It is perhaps the night that is most looked forward to by the children – to be part of the intense preparations that precede it, to feel the sense of urgency as Pesach draws closer and closer and then to come home on Pesach night to be met with a table that is laden with all the unique details that are the Seder Night. The matzot. The bottles of wine. The sparkling crystal. The glistening silver cups. The special Seder plate that is reverently taken out only for Seder Night. The shank bone. The burnt hardboiled egg. The bitter herbs.
Bitter herbs?? What are bitter herbs doing here? Why would anyone want to eat bitter herbs of all things on such a festive and joyous day? It would be understandable if we ate bitter herbs before the saddest day of the year. But why now?
Because without the bitter herbs we would not have a Seder Night.
There is a seemingly simple passage in the Haggadah that we recite on Pesach night that reads, “Therefore, it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, exalt, honor, bless and acclaim Him who performed all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from grief to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption…”
It sounds innocuous enough – we were in dire straits and G-d saved us. End of story. Apparently not. The Maharal from Prague, one of the greatest Jewish scholars in history, explains that we are not beholden only to thank G-d for what is obviously good – the freedom, the joy, the festivity, the great light, the redemption. That is too simplistic. Rather, we have to thank G-d for everything, the bad and the good! Not five things that we have to acknowledge and express our gratitude to G-d for but ten separate dimensions. Each opposite also requires our attention and each “negative” feature needs to be understood and recognized for what it really is. Why? Because without feeling and living the so-called bad it is not possible to appreciate the good! Without truly experiencing what slavery is it is not possible to plumb the depths of what real freedom entails. Without knowing first-hand what darkness is, there is no way that a person can really be conscious of just how wondrous light is. According to the Maharal it transpires that one of the most important messages of the Seder night is that the “bad” is a prelude to a true understanding of what is good!
There is a cutesy story that Rabbi Nachman from Breslov used to tell over to try and convey that idea. A non-Jew once went to Jewish friend to experience Seder Night. Everything looked exquisite and the smells emanating from kitchen were beyond tantalizing. But the food didn’t seem to materialize. First they began to read (for ages!), then, just as thought they were finally going to eat, each person present was given a large dose of bitter herbs and told to eat it. At that point he got up and left (rather quickly!) terrified at what might be next on the “menu”. The next day he went to complain to his friend about his “maltreatment”. His friend looked at him and, instead of apologizing, he scornfully told him, “You fool! It is only after bitter herbs that the delicious food is served!”
Rabbi Nachman from Breslov used to explain that the Jewish Nation has swallowed an awful lot of “bitter herbs” over the generations – but however much it is it is, all preparation for the most sublime feast in the world!
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out a seemingly anomaly in the way that the rabbis decide which is the best choice of vegetable to use for the bitter herbs on Seder Night. The Rabbis list five different possible varieties that can be used and the least desirable choice is actually the most obvious choice – horseradish. And the one that is universally accepted as being the best choice of all is the rather mundane romaine lettuce. Romaine lettuce is not very bitter at all and even after it has been chewed thoroughly it still cannot be compared to horseradish! However Rabbi Feinstein explains that romaine lettuce may start off sweet but the longer it is chewed the more bitter it becomes. And that is why it is the very best kind to use. Very often the onset of something bitter is actually quite sweet and pleasant. It is only as we sink deeper into it that the sweetness wears off and the bitterness is felt. That is what happened to the Jewish People in Egypt. What started off as a pleasant sojourn as exiles waiting to be returned to the Land of Israel turned into something indescribably bitter. Why? Because we stopped acknowledging that G-d placed us in Egypt for a specific reason and we began to imagine that it was a pretty comfortable place to be. The minute that happened the sweetness began to wear off bit by bit until we were left with only the bitter and harsh reality of enslavement.
That is why the bitter herbs play such a central and important part on Seder Night. They are there to let us know that things don’t have to reach a level of bitterness that is untenable as they did in Egypt and as they have done throughout Jewish history. In fact, things do not have to be bitter at all. “All” we have to do is to recognize the messages that G-d is transmitting to us and to live our lives accordingly.
And if we do that, then this year as we sit at the Seder table we can truly savor the delicious sweetness that are the bitter herbs!