The Seder is a place of learning and family, of song and holiness, lots of food, fun, and mitzvot, small children, big children, wise grandparents, laughter, and great seriousness, even awe. It’s also about contradictions.
The symbols collide throughout the night. There are symbols of celebration such as matzah and reclining, and symbols of pain such as maror (bitter herbs) and strange dips that serve to remind us of tears, cement and bricks of our slavery. One interpretation of the meaning of the “Four Questions” speaks to the dueling messages. “Ma Nishtana Haleila Hazeh” — How are we to view this night? Is it matzah or maror? Celebration or mourning, triumph or tragedy?
The matzah itself is a paradox. This simple bread, holy for its very simplicity, is called “the bread of affliction,” slave food, and yet it also evokes for us a memory of the bread that had no time to rise in our rush to taste freedom. Is matzah a symbol of suffering or God’s love?
So is the emotion of the night honoring and remembering the sadness, or singing with hope and joy? The answer, of course, is both.
As children of Holocaust survivors, my sister and I knew intuitively that while the Seder is firstly the story of slavery in Egypt, redemption, and the birth of our nation, it is also about our own parents’ slavery and redemption.
The Seder is a discussion of all of Jewish history. It’s a discussion about the 10 plagues, the splitting of the sea, revelation, the desert, and the glory days of the holy Temples in our homeland. And it is also about exile, inquisition, crusades, pogroms, the Holocaust, intifada, and the incredible miracle of the survival of the Jewish people; and for our family, the incredible miracle of our parents and grandmother. It is as much about our three grandparents who were not there, (for whom my sister and I were named) as about our grandmother who was there, whose very existence was a gift. It’s about the depths of despair and the determination to rebuild with faith and joy.
One of the most moving parts of the Seder centers around the mitzvahs of eating matzah and maror. The Haggadah directs one to recline when eating matzah, but not when partaking of the bitter herbs. I remember thinking many years ago that this business of reclining is like a stage direction for the appropriate emotion during a specific activity. Reclining, an indication of freedom, is a behavioral expression of the emotion that we should be feeling as we eat matzah. As a symbol matzah may signify pain and joy, but tonight we are directed to feel the joy of God’s loving intervention.
Maror, on the other hand, should be eaten without reclining, and so we hear the message that the emotion is sadness, honoring the pain, remembering the loss, feeling the bitterness.
Which brings us to the Hillel sandwich which is called Korech. It consists of two pieces of matzah and bitter herbs in the middle. Do we recline or not? Matzah or maror? Sadness or joy?
Over the years the power of this moment has grown for me, the moment when I once again look down at my Haggadah and see those words “The sandwich is eaten while reclining.” Two small words that convey to us a wisdom of a people, a wisdom that has been our national secret and key to Jewish survival, and Jewish vitality: While reclining. This is what we declare to God, and to our children, our families, friends, neighbors, and perhaps most importantly, to ourselves — as a people we have matzah times and maror times, times of great joy, times of great tragedy. And as families or individuals we have matzah times and maror times. We don’t expect a life without hardship. Life and Jewish history is this sandwich. So we will take this sandwhich that You, God, have given us and we will eat it with joy, while reclining. We eat the entire sandwich with joy because the enveloping matzah provides the context of love that allows us to swallow even the bitter parts with joy. When we feel Your love we know You are our loving Father, and we trust You, even when it hurts.
This is how our grandparents and ancestors lived — with trust, with love, and with joy.