Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Passover Matzo and Bitter Herbs — The Song of Freedom of the Passover Seder

March 31, 2015

By Rabba Ayala Miron-Shashua

At the height of the pre-Passover cleaning chaos, I remember my young son asking me, "Mother, what are you doing?" Without a pause, I answered, "I'm making seder" (Hebrew for "order")! When he didn't respond, I looked up and saw the confusion on his face: nothing around us looked in any way like what he associated with a Seder. I sighed and explained, "What choice do we have? In order for there to be a Seder, there first has to be a big mess!"

Such are my thoughts these days about freedom. Freedom is only reached after passing through a corridor of confusion, blurred boundaries, discomfort and even suffocation. And then, generally without great fanfare, a door opens to freedom.

In my experience, the expectation that freedom will be sweet is usually met with disappointment. Indeed, the taste of freedom is bitter. In "The Prince of Egypt," Universal Studios' animated movie version of the Exodus story, the journey out of Egypt is made in high spirits and with enthusiastic song that anticipates the Song of the Sea, but the impression that arises from the Biblical story, even though, not surprisingly with only some of its details, is that the exodus from Egypt occurred in the middle of the night, in secret, in a hurry and without pillars of fire and billows of smoke leading the tribal wanderers. On the contrary, it seems that more than anything else the sounds that accompanied the exodus from Egypt were the screams from the Egyptian homes, mourning the death of their first-born children.

The songs of wonder, the thanksgiving and the elevated spirits came, as mentioned above, only later, after the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. Even the four expressions of redemption: "Delivered, Saved, Redeemed, and Taken," relate to the description of the exodus from Egypt in retrospect, after the fact, in the memory of the Passover holiday that is observed for generations to come, and it is difficult to imagine that those who left Egypt experienced them in all their power. This also in the personal sphere: when we are in a position of freedom we are generally aware of the true significance of it in retrospect, and then the joy appears.

I would like to suggest a modest observation on freedom.

Freedom is experienced in my opinion in two possible scenarios: the first is the capacity to create for ourselves an opening, window or channel where we once perceived a dead end. The second is the capacity to discover a cascade of options when it seems like we've entered a one-way path.

This relates to the most important lesson from the Exodus story and the parting of the Red Sea: an opening of possibilities and choices in places where it seemed there weren't any. Choice. This may be one of the ways to understand the concept of "Chosen People" — the people who believe in the ability, perhaps even the imperative, to choose.

And here lies the question: How does the Passover holiday or the Seder itself reflect the idea, the potential of freedom? The Seder ceremony reflects a simple principle upon which freedom is also based: The courage to observe reality in a way that is different from what we are accustomed to. Our ability to step outside our comfort zone — to change our perspective, assume a different vantage point, investigate a different pattern of behavior without checking it within ourselves first.

The symbols most clearly identified with the Seder, eating while reclining, the four cups of wine, and the unleavened bread, all resonate with this basic assumption: the exodus from our comfort zone and usual habits is equated with freedom. We sit in a different, and strange way, the most basic food on the table, bread, takes on a different form, without its familiar, comforting consistency, and furthermore, no less than four glasses of wine!

All of this illustrates an idea that is almost painfully simple — that freedom demands change: change of positions, change of interpretations, and reconsideration of the ways that we act and react. Without blurring the borders of the known and familiar, the practiced and routine, there will be no exodus from Egypt.

And if we don’t remember this — then the children ask and remind us with their questions during the Seder: "Why is this night different?"

I also find an expression of this basic idea of freedom in the three elements of the Seder mentioned by Rabbi Gamliel: Passover, Matzo and Maror (Bitter Herbs).

  • Passover — Since we allow ourselves to "pass over" two customary actions: not to respond automatically and not to enter into regular habits.
  • Matzo — Since we consciously desist from the option of swelling our egos and adhering to our opinions, while blockading ourselves in a fortress of our own righteousness. We make an effort to reduce the ongoing run-around of the ego, which tends to swell up and ferment, we do everything in our power to observe ourselves from a distance.
  • Bitter Herbs — The unavoidable taste of choice and of freedom, as I explained above, is not sweet. The consistency of freedom is not airy nor does it slide smoothly down the throat. Perhaps the contrary: freedom leaves a bitter taste, and maybe even gets stuck in the throat. But this bitterness is stimulating, energizing, and demands the kind of attention that the sweet and the smooth don't. And the understanding in retrospect of what we have done, of the way we have behaved, of the choices that we have made, ultimately will bring with it a bit of sweetness, like the maror that we eat during the Seder.

And after we have fulfilled our obligation to these three things: the Passover, Matzo and Bitter Herbs, comes the part that, for me is engraved in my earliest memory and even today I eagerly and joyfully await: the sandwich of Hillel the Elder. To take two pieces of matzo, which is the bread of poverty and of freedom together, and fill them with some bitter herb, which is the memory of slavery but also of the possibility of freedom from it, and the Haroset, which symbolizes mortar and hard labor but also adds sweetness and complexity to the mixture — and the opportunity to experience all those flavors and memories together, to assemble them in one sandwich — dripping, crumbling, bitter and sweet. That, to me, is the song of freedom of the Seder night.

The invitation from the Song of Songs: "Lkha Dodi, Nitze l’sadeh" can be interpreted as an invitation or command to step out from what is comfortable and familiar.

What or how is it different? How are we going to make the difference?

Rabba Ayala Miron-Shashua, is Rabbi of Congregation Bat Ayin in Rosh Hayin and is a contributor to V’hee Sheamda — a Passover Haggadah with a new women's midrash produced by the Elga Stulman Institute at HaMidrasha. It is the first Feminist Israeli Haggadah and includes the traditional text.