My thoughts on the significance of the bitter herbs, on the anniversary of my last night with my son Niot, appear in this week’s “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet put out by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. It’s available in both Hebrew and English Thanks to Kaddish Goldberg of Tirat Tzvi for giving me the odd new experience of having my Hebrew translated into English.
A month ago, following the custom instituted by Mordecai and Esther after the Jews’ victory over their oppressors, we celebrated our deliverance from the hands of Haman. Despite Purim’s characteristic chaos, the sequence of events marked by that holiday seems so logical as to be unremarkable – catastrophe, victory, and redemption in one year, commemoration and celebration for future generations.
At the Seder the opposite occurs. On this night, strangely enough, we participate in a ritual instituted prior to redemption. The first Seder night occurred in Egypt while our ancestors were still slaves. The ritual that was intended to remind us of our exodus from servitude to freedom via God’s powerful hand was observed in the middle of the night, before the participants knew whether the promise of the Lord, as heard from Moshe our teacher, would indeed be fulfilled. Logic would dictate that the first Seder night should be celebrated – as was the first Purim celebration – immediately after the exodus from Egypt, or perhaps a year later, in order to affix this formative event in national memory and custom.
Rabbi Kolonymus Kalmish Shapira, known as the “Aish Kodesh,” after the name of his most famous work, asked this question in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, in his sermon for Parashat Behar. Why, he wondered, were the Children of Israel commanded to eat maror – bitter herbs – on the night of the first Pesach? Explicitly, the purpose of eating maror is to remind us of our suffering under Pharaoh. “Prior to their exodus from Egypt, they had no need to remind themselves, as they were still in Egypt,” he pointed out. …