Why dredge up ugly memories when you’re celebrating your triumphs? It’s much more pleasant to forget the bad times and focus on the good times.
And yet, the Seder focuses a great deal on remembering the pain and suffering of slavery. We have salt water tears, blood red wine, charoset mortar and straw, and most prominently, the bitter herbs of 400 years of slavery.
But why do we spend so much time remembering the bitterness?
The first lesson is that the bitter herb must be bitter; that means we should never fool ourselves and think that the bitter herb is sweet. The pain and suffering of slavery should never be rationalized, period. Too often, people who are pious believe they have found the “divine plan” to explain suffering; instead they have justified the unjustifiable, and ignored the pain of the victims. So we must never forget that bitterness is bitter, and that our only hope is to overcome slavery and make suffering disappear.
The second lesson comes from the lingering taste of bitterness in our mouths. No matter how charmed our lives have been, we all know people who have had bitter experiences; sometimes it’s our friends, or our parents and grandparents. We all know the taste of bitter herbs.
Yet this bitter taste offers us a profound wisdom: in a world with too much bitterness, one must cherish the sweet moments, and recognize how special they are.
One can take life’s sweet moments for granted. People can celebrate beautiful weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, only to be obsessed with the shortcomings of the tablecloths and the desserts. (Yes, I have seen this happen). We lose a sense of perspective about how sweet a simcha is, even if the dessert was a bit overbaked.
The bitter herbs are a reminder never to squander sweetness.
A friend told me a story about his Bar Mitzvah 50 years ago. He was an only child, and both of his parents were Holocaust survivors. At the Bar Mitzvah lunch, his parents went missing. The guests started to look for them, and the synagogue’s superintendent was sent to search the building for them. Finally, he found the Bar Mitzvah boy’s parents huddled in a distant corner, crying in each other’s arms. The parents explained that they were emotionally overwhelmed. During the war they could barely have dreamt that they would survive, and now…. now, they were celebrating their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The power of the joy was simply overwhelming.
This is the sweet lesson of the bitter herbs; when we remember the taste of marror, we learn how to cherish sweetness. We should be overwhelmed with appreciation at any hint of sweetness, and recognize that any Bar Mitzvah is beautiful, even if the tablecloths are the wrong color, and any wedding is sweet, even if the dessert is subpar.
At every seder, there are bitter herbs. Not just on the seder plate, but in the person who is gone and desperately missed. But at the same time, we have to cherish the sweet, to look at each and every person who is there, and recognize that it is a miracle to celebrate together, and that there’s nothing sweeter than a spiritual evening filled with food, family and friends.