Haggadah

Bitter and Sweet

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

Revisiting History and Memory

What does this mean to you?...
— Exodus 13:14

Remember the aggravation of a he said/she said dialogue when you're in an argument? Well, The Wall Street Journal says you're not alone. Elizabeth Bernstein in her article "Honey, You Never Said..." shares fascinating research on how it is that couples recall events or commitments very differently from each other. Who's right? We all want to know, but we will probably never know because there is no right. "Fights often begin with two versions of events. People tend to remember the arguments they lost."

To illustrate, Bernstein opens with a disagreement between a couple. Both agree that after compromising, Carrie told her husband Joe that he could get the arcade machine he wanted. But when he went to pick it up, he purchased two. Carrie was surprised. They hadn't talked about it. Joe claims they did. Isn't it a simple fact? No, it isn't. "How can two people have different memories of the same event? It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place - and how they encoded that memory," concludes psychologist Dr. Michael Ross.  

It turns out that women seem to remember more about relationship issues and their memories of them are "more vivid and detailed," possibly because women report being more emotional at the time of the argument. But before we develop a gender superiority complex, this does not mean that their memories were more accurate. You usually remember the most recent version of your story. Feelings can also change, manipulate and shape memory, especially negative ones. 

In other words, there is not one version of every story. Best to focus on the emotions associated with the argument than fight over recall, says Professor Andrew Christensen in Reconcilable Differences. This can be liberating, especially when it comes to happy facts and memories. 

We are getting ready to share our national narrative with family and friends around the Seder table. That story is dependent on memory, even if it's not first-hand. We are mandated to tell the story and relive history from four different biblical verses representing different ways that people seek out their history: either they ask, it is triggered or it is told to them: 

 Exodus 12:26-27:

 "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved you houses.'"  

Exodus 13:8:

"And you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'"  

Exodus 13:14

"And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean to you?' you shall say to him, 'It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'"  

Deuteronomy 6:20

"When in time your children ask you, 'What do the decrees, laws and rules mean that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?' you shall say to your children, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.'"  

These verses form the spinal cord for the famous Four Sons portion of the Haggada. The sages of old could not understand why the Torah, with its economy of language, would include four verses to get you to share the exodus with the next generation. Their conclusion: there are four different learners, and each needs to know the story. If so, then we have to be generous story-tellers with the capacity for differentiated learning at the table.

But perhaps this isn't the only reasonable interpretation of these multiple commands to do the same thing. You can have one child who remembers a story four different ways depending on the vantage point and the situation. We are often called upon to share differing versions of what we experienced. This is why being a witness is a sacred job. You cannot limit the way the imagination weaves together facts.

What you can do is tell a story with lots of positive energy and - as the quote above suggests - in a way that amplifies mood and meaning so that the memory will last longer and be more transformative. "What does this mean to you?" suggests the personal relevance of the story to everyone who hears it. We tell the same story in different ways all of the time. We may eventually settle on a consistent narrative and then adapt the core aspects to an audience; the audience also change the story. Our Haggadah presses us to read more deeply into the exodus and its meanings that will subsequently allow myriad other stories to unfold. 

What does it all mean to you?

Shabbat Shalom