The Meaning of Maror and Jewish Life in New York
Originally published in the KJ Pesach 2021 Bulletin
Most people think they know why we eat Maror on Passover. Rabban Gamliel himself tells us in the Haggadah: “What does this bitter herb mean? It is eaten because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors.”
In the Bible, however, bitter herbs are mentioned only in the context of eating them with the Paschal sacrifice (roast lamb) on Matzah. Literally on the eve of the exodus, this surely had nothing to do with commemorating Egyptian bondage. The Ohr Hachayim observed that there is a much simpler explanation for the Maror requirement: it tastes better that way. The Paschal sacrifice, eaten on Matzah with bitter herbs, is meant to be enjoyed, and “it is common for people to eat roast meat with something sharp as this enhances the taste of the meat and enables one to thoroughly enjoy it.” According to this, bitter herbs on the Korban Pesach are analogous to our mustard on pastrami or hot sauce on shawarma.
These two rationales for eating Maror are antithetical to each other: According to our Haggadah, we eat Maror because it tastes bitter. According to Ohr Hachayim, we eat Maror because it makes the food taste better—not bitter! Which is it?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik distinguished between two aspects of suffering. The first is the primary, raw experience, which he designated as Fate. He wrote in Kol Dodi Dofek, “Evil is a fact that cannot be denied. There is evil in the world. There are suffering and agony, and death pangs. He who would deceive himself...by romanticizing life is but a fool and fabricator of illusions.” Judaism neither ignores our suffering and pain nor pretends they do not exist. We do not know the “reason” why people suffer: we just know we have suffered and will again in the future; such is our fate.
The Rav called the second dimension of our experience of suffering, Destiny. “When the ‘Child of Destiny’ suffers, he says in his heart, ‘There is evil, I do not deny it...I ask a single question: What should the sufferer do to live with his suffering? … What does suffering obligate man to do?’” No one denies the truth and deep struggle and pain of suffering. But Judaism’s primary questions are the ethical ones: What shall we do with this suffering, now that we have experienced it?
Egyptian slavery was a great evil; following it, our ancestors used its experiences to establish our nation, our relationship with God, and inspire our ethical treatment of strangers. The destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile were catastrophic, but the rabbinic sages used the experience to develop religious practices and Torah study which have kept our people strong and together for close to two millennia. Following the greatest evil we have known in centuries, the Holocaust, the Jewish people profoundly understood that our task was to create and build up the modern State of Israel. Evil and suffering are the greatest bitterness, but we must not waste our suffering. We are called upon to utilize the experiences and the lessons learned to elevate ourselves and our world.
That is why Maror has two distinct meanings and, according to Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, why we eat the bitter herb twice at the Seder. On its own, Maror is bitter and unpleasant. It commemorates our Egyptian bondage. But our task is to take the Maror and figure out what to do with it. How do we exploit Maror, on its own so unpalatable, and use it productively? The answer: We make a Korech sandwich. We use that bitter herb which we have been handed to elevate and ennoble the Korban Pesach. In other words, the Maror in both its forms represents the Jewish approach to suffering.
There is no way to overstate the suffering that has taken place over the past year around the world in general and in New York City in particular. The worst suffering has been the loss of life and rampant illness, but the malaise has been exacerbated by the economic, social, and cultural effects of the pandemic. What does the future of synagogue and Jewish communal life in New York look like?
I am comforted by the insight of Dr. Kenneth Jackson (my history professor at Columbia): New York City’s success and resilience is based on its unabashed willingness to reinvent itself. Since the early 1600s when it was founded, whenever tragedy struck or stumbling blocks were encountered, New Yorkers soon determined the best course and direction to take to come out of it. The Jewish community of New York, which has been here from the beginning, is no exception. In 1949, E.B. White observed, “It’s a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible.” But New York works because New Yorkers know how to make sandwiches out of their bitter herbs.
KJ has been a leader of the Jewish community both in New York City and nationally in large part because the community and its leadership have always known how to identify approaches to modern orthodox Judaism and apply them creatively in ways that are relevant to the present. As rabbi of the modern orthodox synagogue in Albany these past years, I was inspired by the mentorship I received at KJ to create engaging adult education and innovative family programming that spoke to the interests of the community, and to form close relationships with its members. Now, Rachel and I cherish the opportunity to come back to the city we call home and a community we love so much; our children can’t wait to be back in the city and attend Ramaz.
Rabbi Lookstein always taught, “To be a Jew is to be an optimist.” I am extraordinarily optimistic that as we begin to see the end of this pandemic, while we are devastated by the loss and suffering, we will innovate and create and build and emerge stronger than we were before. I am excited to join with Rabbi Steinmetz, the clergy and leadership of KJ, and the entire community as we take these bitter herbs and make them into Korech sandwiches.