The Torah (Shemos 12:8) teaches “… and matzos with maror shall they eat it.”
[Hashem] commanded them to eat maror in remembrance of how “they embittered their lives” — Rashi
In my home, it is my role to prepare the Seder ka’arah, a role I greatly relish. Every year, while roasting the beitzah and zeroah, washing and checking the romaine lettuce, chopping my charoses, and slicing and grinding the maror, my eyes fill with tears as I recall a particular experience that I can never forget.
Many years ago, after all the preparations and late nights, the first night of Pesach finally arrived. At the end of a beautiful davening in shul, the air was thick with anticipation, with everyone extending each other a “gut Yom Tov” as they filed out of shul to head home.
As my friend and I walked to the doorway, I noticed that he seemed distracted, quieter than usual. As he stopped to wait for his father-in-law, he turned to me and asked, “Why should my father-in-law have to eat maror tonight? He is not well; he endured the concentration camps and knew slavery firsthand. Why does he have to be reminded of the bitterness of Mitzrayim when he lived through his own?” There was no time to discuss it further as his father-in-law caught up with us, wished me, “gut Yom Tov,” and they slowly walked away together, but I was left pondering my friend’s question.
That evening, my family and I sat around the table for the Seder. We started with Kadesh and Urchatz, then set upon the order of the night. We reached Motzei Matzah and all made sure to eat the kezayis. Then, while I was handing out each person’s portion of the sliced and ground maror, my friend’s question returned to my mind. I paused while serving myself, and my hand, holding the maror, slowly came to rest on the table.
My family, like countless others, has suffered through the trials of unfathomable pain and loss. I, too, asked myself, “Why should anyone who endured the Holocaust have to eat maror tonight? Why should anyone living through chemotherapy and its terrible nisayonos, anyone who is suffering from deep yissurim — why should they have to eat maror tonight? Don’t they experience pain and bitterness every day? Should the bitter herb perhaps only be eaten by people who lead a charmed life, leaving those who have suffered tragedy and illness to be exempt?” It was at this moment that I heard the sound of my son in the next room, whimpering in pain.
For many years my son suffered from an unrelenting lung disease; it was extremely difficult for him to breathe without anguish. As I listened, knowing that I didn’t have the power to ease his pain, I again asked myself why I should I eat maror at the Seder. Every day I felt the pain of my son, watching his agony as he fought to take a breath. I should be exempt; the pain never goes away, and I need no reminder of bitter times.
I was still struggling with this question when I recalled a hospital visit to see the parents of a 22-year-old who had been in a terrible motorcycle accident. The young man lay unconscious in the ICU, his family constantly at his side. In meetings with his doctors, the parents were given the devastating news that he was most likely permanently paralyzed and would never walk again. Every day, the doctor would enter the hospital room, take a sharp needle, and stroke the base of the young man’s foot. Sometimes he would press the needle in to see if there was any reaction, but there never was. With every passing day, the fear of this stark future became more of a reality.
After several days of this same routine, I was standing by the bedside with the family when the doctor came in. Once more he performed the same test.
Incredibly, on this day, when he stuck the sharp needle into the boy’s foot, the lines on the monitors started to spike, his heart rate went up, his blood pressure climbed — and then, there it was, a slight jerk of the leg. The doctor turned to the family and said, “Thank G-d I am causing your son pain!”
The mother replied, aghast, “Why is that something to be thankful for?”
Without hesitation the doctor smiled and replied, “Every day that I touched and prodded your son’s foot with the needle and he didn’t react, I wasn’t sure if he could feel anything. And if he couldn’t feel anything, I was concerned that the nerve damage was so severe that he would never walk again. But today when I stuck him with the needle, he felt it! This means his nerves are not dead. They’re bruised and traumatized, but they are still alive, and he will get through this. It will take time, but he will survive and walk again.”
And so it became clear — as at this Seder from so many years ago — why I, my family, my friend’s father-in-law and all those who suffer pain and loss must eat the maror. We do not eat the maror only to remind us of the bitterness that our forefathers experienced in Mitzrayim, as this is something of which we never need to be reminded. We eat the maror to make sure that we can taste the bitterness; to reaffirm that life’s challenges have not left us numb, that we are still able to feel.
Far too often, the overwhelming emotions from tragedy and illness reduce people to a shell of their former selves, disconnected from the beauty of life. On this special night however, Hashem assures us that if you are able to taste the bitterness of the maror, then you are not lifeless inside; one day soon you will be able to taste life with joy and happiness.
My brachah for all who are suffering this year is that the maror should remind us that we are, baruch Hashem, still able to feel, and that we will be zocheh to enjoy simchah in our lives again and see the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.
Rabbi Ten is the President of the Bikur Cholim of Los Angeles, California
Quaytman contributed to this article.