There is a deep tension at the heart of the Haggadah: are we reenacting our ancestors’ experience in Egypt or celebrating their redemption? “This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people”, we recite at the beginning of the Seder. However, just moments before we reclined, as we drank our first cup of wine, to symbolize that we are indeed, right now, free. This paradox lies at the heart of a dispute about the nature of one of the Seder’s most poignant and pungent symbols – maror, the bitter herbs.
The Torah tells us that one must eat maror along with the paschal sacrifice, the korban pesach, which is the ultimate symbol of our redemption from Egypt. Yet, the 11th century commentator Rashi explains that maror is not related to our liberation but instead is meant to remind us of the bitter lives that our ancestors led in Egypt. However, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, better known by name of his Biblical commentary, the Ohr HaChayim, provides a surprising and very different explanation for why we need to eat maror along with the korban pesach. According to the Ohr HaChayim, we eat maror along with the korban pesach not to experience the bitterness of slavery but instead to enhance the taste of the korban pesach. Pungent spices enhance the taste of meat, as anyone who has eaten shawarma with charif knows well, and according to the Ohr HaChayim meat was eaten this way in Ancient Egypt. From this perspective it appears that maror, like the korban pesach, is primarily a symbol of freedom and not slavery.
The debate about the meaning of maror may be related to another dispute amongst medieval rabbinic authorities. Does the Torah enjoin us to eat maror on the seder night as a distinct commandment or is there is only a Biblical requirement to eat maror alongside the korban pesach? The Ashkenazi work, Sefer Yereim, suggests that there is a distinct biblical requirement to eat maror on the seder night, while Maimonides writes that the requirement to eat maror is part and parcel of the commandment to eat the korban pesach.
These disputes reflect two different understandings about what constitutes psychological wholeness. According to Rashi and the Sefer Yereim there is a requirement to experience and remember the bitterness of slavery separate from anything else. Like a psychoanalyst who sees value in the expression of repressed emotions even before they are interpreted, Rashi and the Sefer Yereim view maror as a means for us to focus our thoughts purely on the degradation and sorrow we experienced as slaves. However, the Ohr HaChayim and Maimonides present a different understanding of what constitutes psychological wellbeing, bitterness, according to this position, should be expressed but only as part of a holistic story. Like the narrative psychologists who explain that mental health is defined by the ability to tell stories redemptively, by the capacity to see challenges and setbacks in view of a positive ending, the Ohr HaChayim and Maimonides insist that the bitterness of maror is best understood when eaten with the korban pesach, the ultimate symbol of our liberation.
The Haggadah itself weighs in on this debate. We eat maror twice at the seder. Once by itself and then, though we no longer have a korban pesach, again mixed with matza and the sweetness of the charoset. The Haggadah does not adopt exclusively either view of what defines psychological well-being, instead it teaches that these two views actually constitute two stages that we must go through as we seek to overcome challenges. First, we must acknowledge the pain and bitterness that we feel without any attempt to qualify it, but then in time we need to be able to look and see the challenges we faced as an experience that pushed us towards our ultimate goal. At the Seder, we symbolically move between these two stages in a matter of minutes, but in real life it can take much longer. This year on Pesach we may relate far more to maror as a symbol of bitterness than as one of redemption. Our tradition emphasizes the importance of us acknowledging and expressing these bitter feelings, even as we believe that all sadness and bitterness will ultimately find its redemption.