My Grandfather's Maror
Some bitter herbs cannot be eaten.
"You cannot understand what it was like. You can't imagine."
Suddenly our family Seder, usually exuberant with words of Torah, song, and the telling of our ancestors' exodus from Egypt, becomes more solemn, as my grandfather approaches the Hagadda with the baggage of a Holocaust survivor.
"What about all the times when God didn't save us?"
He can't help but ask the unanswerable questions which continue to haunt his thoughts. The younger generations sitting at the table grapple to explain the "answers" we tell ourselves to support our beliefs -- beliefs my grandfather himself puts into practice even after years of questioning. But as soon as he says it, describing just two graphic examples of the horror, I know my grandfather is right: "You were not there. You can never understand."
I distract myself by casting my gaze downward toward the bowl of maror (bitter herbs) sitting before me. I hold a plastic fork in my hand, using it to mix around the ground up pieces of horseradish. The tiny pieces move around the bowl easily, ready to be swallowed with a minimum amount of challenge to the taste buds.
This piece is too large, too hard and bitter to be eaten whole.
And then, my fork hits something solid. Mixed up among the tiny pieces lies a large chunk of the original horseradish root, as solid as ever. I try to cut it and stab it with my fork, but to no avail. This piece will not be broken up tonight. It is too large, too hard, and too strong and bitter for anybody to eat whole.
I look up at my grandfather. I attempt to say something worthwhile, some words of comfort. We are still here, getting stronger, still praising God for the good. Thoughts that evil is man-made flit through my head. Thoughts that perhaps, regardless, we just can't understand, mortal humans as we are. But as my eyes turn back to the maror, silence is my response.
Why can't that chunk just go away? It's so much easier to deal with the mixture that has gone through the food processor. Frustrated, I stab at the chunk again, thinking how this piece is more connected to its root than the other pieces. This piece contains more bitterness than any of the ground up pieces.
The images will not go away from my grandfather's brain. He speaks of rabbis humiliated by Nazis who cut their skin off together with their beards, of public hangings. The pain and bitterness is rock solid, indigestible. But for myself, my brothers, my parents, the pain is ground up into tiny, palatable pieces. What can we do about the troubled solid chunk sitting in the bowl?
My eyes divert from the bowl before me and shift to the other symbolic foods on the table. They stop and rest on the lump of charoset (a mixture of sweet ingredients, including apples, wine, and nuts) on the Seder plate. We add sweet charoset to soften the maror's sharpness. The charoset, with its mortar-like texture and bloodlike ingredient of red wine, acknowledges the suffering and bitterness of the Hebrew slaves, while also introducing hope for sweetness in the future generations of our People.
The charoset contains fruits to which the eternal Jewish Nation is compared, and apples associated with Jewish women in Egypt giving birth to the next generation (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 114a). I peer at my family, seated around the table, and think of my new six-month-old nephew, my grandfather's first great-grandchild, whose family celebrates the holiday in far-off Israel.
Taking in the Passover spirit, I realize there is but one thing we can do to respond to my grandfather at such a Seder. We dip the maror in the charoset.