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Why Celebrate with Bitter Herbs?

March 23, 2010 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Yes, God took us out of Egypt, but He put us there in the first place!

Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, was obsessed with suffering. The Torah’s first statement about the adult Moses is: “Moses grew up and he went out to his brethren and he saw their suffering…” [Ex. 2:11] Moses did not venture out of Pharaoh’s palace on a fact-finding mission. According to the classical commentator Rashi, Moses went out in order to see their suffering: “He devoted his eyes and his heart to feel pain over them.”

Moses, pampered with a palace upbringing, could not bear witnessing the suffering inflicted on the Hebrew slaves. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew, Moses interceded and killed the taskmaster. The next day, instead relaxing in the palace and congratulating himself on a job well done, he was again inexorably drawn to the scene of Israelite suffering.

According to Jewish tradition, Moses is the author of the Biblical Book of Job, the classic text that grapples with the question of why the righteous suffer. This question is quintessentially Jewish since it assumes that life is not random, not subject to the capriciousness of fate, that there is a God of justice and mercy who is running the show. Perhaps that is why Moses, who experienced direct Divine revelation more clearly than any other person in history, was so troubled by suffering. He knew God would never inflict gratuitous pain.

Moses knew that God would never inflict gratuitous pain.

The Book of Job dismisses the various explanations offered by Job’s friends, including the contention that all suffering is punishment for sin. In the end, God Himself speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. But rather than giving answers, He poses questions, questions that point out the puny scale of human understanding compared to the Divine infinitude. Rather than answering the question of why the righteous suffer, the Book of Job asserts that this cosmic conundrum cannot be totally comprehended by mere mortals.

The Torah relates that Moses, the most humble of human beings, made a chutzpah-filled request of God. He asked, “Make Your way known to me” [Ex.33:13]. Rashi quotes the Talmud that Moses was asking God why He allows the righteous to suffer and the wicked to prosper. God responded, “You will not be able to see My face, for no human being can see My face and live.” Instead, God offers a mystical compromise. He places Moses in the cleft of a rock while His glory passes over him, and then allows Moses to see His back. One of the interpretations: In retrospect, sometimes we can see the salutary results of suffering, but not from the front while it’s happening. Not while we humans “live” in this world of physicality and limitation.


Imagine a Thanksgiving table set in a Connecticut home. The family has gathered around to celebrate the survival of the Pilgrims through their first rugged New World winter. There, next to the turkey and the cranberry sauce, is a bowl of snow, symbolizing the fierce cold the Pilgrims endured. Next to that is the emblem of a graveyard, to remember the 45 (out of 102) Pilgrims who perished during that first winter. And the pumpkin pie is laced with horseradish just so no one will forget how much the Pilgrims suffered.

The question "What is the purpose of suffering?" hovers over the Seder.

No Americans would mar their Thanksgiving celebration with symbols of suffering, but this is precisely what we Jews do on Passover. The Seder table includes: salt water reminiscent of the tears the Hebrew slaves shed; charoses symbolizing the mortar used in the backbreaking labor of building; and bitter herbs, eaten to re-experience the bitter suffering of our ancestors. Even the matzah, “the bread of freedom” is also referred to as “the bread of affliction,” the fare of impoverished slaves. The Haggadah, the story of the Redemption, devotes long passages to detailed descriptions of the servitude and suffering in Egypt. What way is this to celebrate our redemption?

In fact, the Seder forces the question that is the conundrum of the Passover celebration: We celebrate that God took us out of Egypt, but who else but God put us into Egypt in the first place? The Ten Plagues were meant to teach both Israelites and Egyptians that God has absolute control over nature and that God micro-manages the world. God could have stopped the immense suffering of the Jews in Egypt long before He did. The dogged question that Jews have been probing ever since Moses ― what is the purpose of suffering? — hovers over the Seder like a mysterious presence.

Clearly, the Seder is about the connection between suffering and redemption. It makes the electrifying statement that redemption is an outgrowth of suffering. Suffering shears away the superfluous and superficial, and lays bare the core self. It reveals to those who suffer levels of fortitude and transcendence they did not know they possessed. Of course, human beings have free will. A person can choose to respond to suffering with bitterness and resentment. But for the person who chooses otherwise, suffering can lead to greatness.

Indeed, the sages refer to the years of torture in Egypt as the “kur habarzel ― the iron crucible,” employing the metaphor of the vessel silversmiths use to refine silver. Several years ago, a group of women studying the Biblical book of Malachi were struck by the verse, “[God] will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify [the Jewish People]” [Malachi 3:3]. Curious as to how the process of smelting silver applies to God’s treatment of the Jewish People, one woman went to observe a silversmith at work.

As the silversmith held a piece of silver over the fire, he explained that he needed to hold the silver where the flame was hottest in order to burn away all the impurities. The woman, remembering the Biblical verse, asked if he had to sit there the whole time the silver was being refined. The silversmith responded that not only did he have to sit and hold the silver the entire time, but he had to keep a careful eye on it, because if the silver was left in the flame a moment too long, it would be destroyed.

“How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” the woman asked.

“That’s easy," he replied. "When I see my image in it.”

The Prophet’s metaphor was clear: God holds the Jewish People in the hottest part of the fire of suffering in order to completely purify us, but He is with us throughout the process and never takes His eyes off us nor allows us to be destroyed. And the purification will be complete only when God can see His image in us.


Michal Franklin, our neighbors’ daughter, was murdered in a terror attack. The lovely, gentle 21-year-old had finished her last day of college and was standing near a Jerusalem bus stop when she was blown up by an Arab suicide bomber. Even now, eight years later, I cannot write of Michal’s death without crying.

He was going to talk about his murdered sister under the chuppah.

Five years after Michal’s murder, her younger brother Dovid got married. As a guest at the wedding, I knew my part: I was to smile, act happy, and under no circumstances mention the family tragedy. Standing near the chuppah during the ceremony, I was thus surprised to hear the officiating rabbi announce that the groom wished to speak. As the microphone was handed to Dovid, my whole body tensed. I knew he was going to talk about his murdered sister. I closed my eyes and issued a silent plea: “No, not here! Not now! Don’t stain the joy of your wedding with the black ink of Michali’s terrible death!” I felt my knees start to buckle, but it was too late. Dovid was speaking.

“I want to mention under my chuppah my sister Michal, who isn’t here next to me on this important day. Michali was killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem five years ago. I feel her absence.”

There it was: the bitter herbs in the midst of the Passover celebration. After Dovid spoke, he handed the microphone back to the rabbi. The ceremony continued and concluded. Then something remarkable happened. A burst of joy erupted like a geyser, as if from the earth deep below. It became the most joyous wedding I have ever attended. People danced with exultation, blissful smiles illuminating everyone’s face. The elation was palpable. And the pinnacle of that other-worldly euphoria came when, amidst the circle of women dancing, the bride danced with her new mother-in-law Sarah (Michali’s mother) and Sarah’s mother, a survivor of Auschwitz. The three of them made a circle of intertwined suffering-and-joy that lifted us all to another dimension.

I can’t explain how it happened. I only know that it did.


We celebrate the Jewish nation born through both suffering and the miracles.

The Seder teaches us that suffering causes redemption. But, as Moses learned, we can see only “God’s back.” Only in retrospect, with the passage of time, even eons, is suffering interpretable, and sometimes not in this physical world at all. Most of the mothers whose babies were brutally torn from them by Egyptian soldiers and thrown into the Nile did not live to witness the Exodus from Egypt. And for those who did, did they exit Egypt with a sense of triumph or with the mournful mien we sometimes recognize in Holocaust survivors? For many, no doubt, it took the Splitting of the Sea and the Revelation at Sinai to convince them that the depths of their fiery suffering had forged them into people capable of experiencing the heights of Redemption and Revelation. Only looking back could they discern that their pain was part of a purifying, redemptive process that made it intelligible ― and worth it.

Sitting at our Seder tables this year, with the perspective of 3322 years separating us from the Exodus, we celebrate the Jewish nation that was born through both the suffering of Egypt and the miracles of the Redemption. We appreciate that the two together are the parents who spawned us.

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