The questions of the Haggada are designed to stimulate an exploration of our freedom. We are to relive history, and we do so through a series of symbolic foods. But some of the questions we ask seem to have obvious answers, so much so that the very questions appear trivial and hardly a trigger for study. Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we ask this question?
Maror is certainly the easiest food on the Seder table to explain. Here is how the Haggada answers the question:
Because the Egyptians embittered our fathers' lives in Egypt, as it is said: 'They made their lives bitter with hard service, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field; all their service which they made them serve with rigor.'
Based on a biblical verse from Exodus, the bitterness of the taste reflects the bitterness of our ancient lives as slaves.
It is no coincidence that our redemption is traced in food images. There are the foods associated with Egypt which we pine for but we cannot access. There is manna, the transitional food associated with the wilderness journey that will stop in Joshua 5, just as we were about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are the lush, sweet foods of the Land of Israel, described through the seven species: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land-a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing..." (Deut 8:7-9).The fruits trees and vines of Israel will yield and yield and yield. They will suggest a permanence and autonomy in their own land that our people could never achieve in Egypt with its bitter foods and bitter work.
This sour after-taste was not only related to the work, but also to the foods we ate in Egypt that we then hankered for in the midst of our long desert trek. In Numbers 11, we mourn the foods we could no longer have: the onions, the garlic, the leeks. And the list goes on. I have the occasional food craving, but it's never for any of these foods. The ancient historian Herodotus identifies these as slave foods, inexpensive foods that mirrored the suffering by being themselves bitter. We were consumed by our bitterness and then needed to consume it. When bitter tastes filled our mouths for so long, they became hard to get out of our heads.
Perhaps this explains the most enigmatic food of the Seder table: the Hillel sandwich. We mix the bitterness of maror with the sweetness of haroset and matza into a sandwich that always crumbles indelicately all over the tablecloth. This sandwich will never compete with a hot pastrami on rye or even the humble peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on white, but it wins as a symbolic food packed with meaning. The Hillel sandwich, with its combination of contradictory tastes and textures - the sharpness of horseradish combined with the nutty, fruity paste of apples, wine and walnuts and the texture and crisp of matzah- reflects the complexities of any traumatic experience that creates an epistemic transformation.
Redemption is confusing and messy. There was no finish line to suggest when our ancient slave lives ended and our new free lives began. There were events, to be sure, but in the realm of internal change, there was no set line to cross. Change is hard, even if what we are leaving is pain and anguish. There are the smells and the tastes of the past, the good memories that stay, the bad associations that wane over time. All of this we eat together. But perhaps something even deeper is going on with this sandwich.
The sandwich teaches us to make the bitter of the past sweet because otherwise we will become what we eat: bitter creatures whose only memories are of suffering and anguish. We all know kvetchers and people who have experienced genuine tragedies who turn all the past to pain and become sour and difficult. There is an art to blessing our pain because it becomes our teacher. It teaches us how to live. Jews have a mandate to make a blessing on the bad as well as the good, maybe because something bad can turn into something good, can turn into an unexpected blessing.
The Hillel Sandwich teaches us that when we ingest pain or review the pain of our past, we should dip a bit of it into haroset so that the last, sweet taste in our mouth lingers. Every part of the past, even a difficult one, is not pain. And every pain can become a tool for a future of blessing. Let the joy linger in our mouths...and in our minds...and in our hearts.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover