These bitter greens that we eat: for what reason? Because the Egyptians embittered the lives our ancestors in Egypt, as it is said (Exodus 1:14): "They made their lives bitter with hard labor, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of work in the field; all the labor which they imposed upon them was ruthless."(N.B.: I originally wrote this piece with the assumption of an audience familiar with both the Biblical story of the Exodus and the contemporary observance of Pesach. In revising it for DK, I have done my best to expand or provide links to explanatory articles wherever they seemed likely to be useful. Please let me know if I have neglected to clarify anything. -B.)
- traditional text from the Haggadah
For this d'var, instead of talking about this week's parasha, I'm going to talk about Pesach, and about one particular aspect of it that I've often felt doesn't get enough attention.
I think it's fair to say that out of the entire Jewish calendar, Pesach is the holiday most bound up in symbolic items. The Seder, as both story and reenactment, is full of things that represent other things. The matzah, the spilling of wine during the recitation of the ten plagues, the salt water, each item on the Seder plate: all symbols.
As some of you already know, I was an English major; analyzing symbols is something I do, sometimes without even really meaning to. So in recent years I've been focusing a lot on the particular symbolism of maror and haroset.
Now, those of us who grew up with the Pesach Seder already know what maror and haroset symbolize: maror symbolizes "slavery", haroset symbolizes "bricks" or "mortar." When people talk about symbolism in any detail, though, haroset tends to get bypassed in favor of maror. There are a lot of little homilies about the various bitter herbs used for maror; one common one has to do with the use of romaine lettuce, which is sweetish when one first begins to eat it but grows bitter the longer one chews it. This is seen as reflecting the time the Israelites spent in Egypt: pleasant at first, then gradually growing worse.
So what I started wondering a few years ago is this: why is haroset sweet?
Follow me below the blob of orange mortar for more.
Looking at that question, "why is haroset sweet?", I'm going to take a moment to talk about something I heard once from the noted Bible scholar Nechama Lebovitz; something she said about the Seder's Four Questions and about questions in general. According to Nechama, there are two kinds of questions: she'elah and kushiah, to give the Hebrew terms. A she'elah is a straightforward request for information; a kushiah is a question about something one has observed that deviates from expectations or from prior observation. The Four Questions are kushiot, not she'elot. We don't ask "why do we eat matzah tonight?" We ask "Why do we eat matzah tonight when on all other nights we don't?"
So this too is a kushiah. If haroset symbolizes mortar, which represents an aspect of slavery; and if the other symbol of slavery at the Seder, the maror, is bitter ... then why isn't haroset bitter as well? There's a lot of different ways to make haroset, with different ingredients – I've found recipes involving figs, dates, pomegranate juice, orange rind, all kinds of things – but it always involves fruit of some kind, it always involves spices, and it's always sweet.
This can't be accidental. There's any number of things you could make a mortar-like substance out of, that would taste bitter – or salty or sour or bland. If haroset is sweet, it's sweet on purpose. It's sweet for a reason.
I went and checked out the Talmudic source for haroset. It turns out there's one very practical reason, and it has to do with medical practice of the time when the Seder was first being codified. It was believed that the sweetness and the spices in the haroset were necessary to counter the kappa, the bitter substance in the maror, to keep it from being poisonous. That if you didn't dip the maror in something sweet, the bitterness itself could make you sick. The gemara warns, in fact, against leaving the maror in the haroset for too long – you dip it, you don't steep it – because if you do, the spices will completely neutralize the bitterness, and then you won't have properly fulfilled the holiday's obligation of eating maror.
(Just parenthetically: There's also a fascinating second opinion that says kappa isn't actually a substance in the plant, but a kind of small worm that lives in lettuce leaves and that's toxic if eaten alive, and that the spices in the haroset kill it so that it's safe to eat. And a side question of does this mean that a dead kappa is kosher, which if so would be truly bizarre considering that worms and similar crawlers are generally verboten, but we're not going to go into that right now.)
Anyone find the practical reason a satisfying one by itself? No, me neither. Because if the main purpose it serves is a practical one – and a necessary practical one, to keep the maror from poisoning you – there'd be no need to attach any symbolic significance to it at all. It'd be a simple safety measure. No, I think there's something else going on here, and that's why I want to take a closer look at what the maror and haroset are supposed to be representing, and how they work together as a unified symbol.
Let's look at that. Do they work together as a unified symbol? The maror represents slavery, which is an abstract concept. And the haroset represents mortar, which is (no pun intended) a concrete object.
Unless it isn't. Unless what the haroset is representing is the symbolic properties of mortar.
So what are the properties of mortar? What does it do, in construction? It holds the structure together. No matter how strong the bricks are, if they're not held together by mortar then sooner or later the structure will fall apart.
So there's physical mortar, which holds together the structure of the building. And there's what you might call a metaphysical mortar, which holds together the structure of the abstract concept that is slavery.
What keeps slavery from falling apart? The slaves are usually unhappy with their situation. There are almost always more slaves than there are slavemasters – especially in this case, as we're told repeatedly how numerous the Israelites are. Historically, slave revolts have happened, and in some cases they've been successful. One could argue that in a way they've almost all been successful – they might not have escaped alive, but they by-god stopped being slaves. So why don't slave revolts happen all the time? What makes people stay slaves, rather than risk their lives to escape it? What holds the system together?
Well, it's a number of things, of course. But there's one particular thing I want to focus on, and it's to do with a fundamental aspect of human psychology. It's both a great strength and, potentially, a great vulnerability – and it's our ability to adapt to our situation. And often we adapt, psychologically, by convincing ourselves that things could be worse. Both in the sense of "things could get worse if we aren't careful," and in the sense of "things aren't really that bad."
And as long as we can tell ourselves that things aren't really that bad – as long as we can find some good in our situation, something we can still enjoy, something we still have to lose – as long as there's a little sweet covering up the bitter, we can make ourselves swallow just about anything.
And that, I believe, is the metaphysical mortar that keeps the structure of slavery – and many other toxic systems as well – from falling apart. That is the haroset that counteracts the bitterness of a bad situation enough so that we can choke it down. A little of it's necessary; without it, the bitterness can kill us. There is a midrash about Amram, the father of Moses, that says he decided that the best response to Pharaoh's edict about drowning all boy babies born to the Israelite women was for the Israelites to stop having babies at all. (According to the story, his young daughter Miriam convinced him otherwise, and it was due to her wisdom that her younger brother Moses was conceived.) Amram was mistaken here in giving in to bitterness, and when Miriam talked him out of it, she demonstrated the best side of the awareness that things could be worse: if you do this, she argued, you'll be preemptively destroying the daughters as well as the sons. As long as there are new children, there's hope for the future. And that hope can be enough to mitigate the bitterness, to make it bearable enough to survive.
But that also makes it bearable enough not to rebel. While we still have something left to lose, while things can still get worse, we’re afraid to risk that little – so afraid that sometimes we don't even dare to cry out aloud in our misery, as the Israelites didn't dare to until the king of Egypt died, a generation or more after the slavery began; until their cry to God could be camouflaged by the Egyptians’ public mourning. And when Moses came to demand that his people be set free, and Pharaoh responded by laying heavier work on the slaves, they didn’t blame Pharaoh – they blamed Moses. Because if he had just been sensible like the rest of them and not complained, things would still be the way they were. And thus our awareness of how things could get worse, our fear that things will get worse, acts to keep us invested in maintaining stability. Makes us afraid of any change. Mortars us into place, and holds the status quo together.
Even worse: too much of it for too long, and the maror can be neutralized so completely that we forget it ever was bitter. During the forty years of wandering in the desert, every so often when things looked difficult for the Israelites, someone would raise the cry of why o why did we ever leave Egypt? That right there is a memory of slavery that's been steeping in haroset for too long; all the bitterness has been leached out. All the times when the Israelites waxed nostalgic for all the ways they'd had it better in Egypt, do you think they'd forgotten the conditions they lived in then – the backbreaking labor and the beatings and the forced separation of their families and the mass murder of their children? This shows just how well the mortar had set in their minds: that even after the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea, even after witnessing the deaths of their former masters, so many of the Israelites were still thinking like the slaves they had been. Still able to convince themselves, despite everything, that their lives back then weren't so bad as all that.
I could name similar examples from history, and from the present day as well. I have no doubt that any of you reading this could offer half a dozen examples without stopping to think about it; it wouldn't surprise me to hear that many of you could offer examples from your own personal lives. Because really, it can apply to any bad situation – and god knows there are enough of those, on every scale from personal and familial straight up through national and global – any bad situation that's not quite unrelentingly terrible; that has just enough sweetness in it to make one unwilling to die.
But, and this is important: that sweetness isn't a manipulation to be rejected or distrusted. The bitterness of our lives, says the liturgy, is something our captors inflicted on us; the sweetness was not. Not as bait in their trap, or a false promise held out to soothe us into staying. It was simply there alongside the bitterness, all along: undiscussed, unmentioned (perhaps for fear of losing it), but there, as real and solid as mortar and bricks.
So when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt this year at the Seder, when we eat the bitter greens to remember how the Egyptians made our lives bitter, I intend to also remember – and remind those sitting with me – how our ancestors countered that bitterness with sweetness, and how we ourselves may do the same. Both in the self-defeating ways that cement us into immobility, and in the necessary strengthening ways that help us stay alive in the face of adversity. And we can do that with haroset, which I hope you will all agree is a more potent and complex symbol than anyone gives it credit for.