The Blessing of Bitter
Did you notice that some supermarkets started putting Passover foods out really early this year? The reason being, it is the custom of supermarkets to put out Easter and Passover stuff at the same time. They usually occur around the same time. This year there is nearly a month between these two holidays, Easter having occurred on March 27th; Passover begins on April 22nd. That’s because the Jewish calendar has a leap year this year. You see, to adjust the lunar-solar Jewish calendar every few years, the ancient rabbis decided to wait until there was an entire month disparity between the lunar and solar calendars to make the adjustment, or more accurately, intercalation.
All of this got me thinking. If the supermarkets have started preparing for Passover already…shouldn’t we be getting prepared already?
Actually, yes. There is a Jewish custom of starting the preparation for Passover about one month before it begins. I’m not referring to preparing our gefilte fish or charoset ahead of time. They would spoil. Rather, we are to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually to grasp all of the intricacies that Pesach has to offer.
There are special Shabbat Torah readings which precede Passover –they are added to the weekly Torah portion. Tomorrow, Jules will read the weekly Torah portion, Tazria. Tonight, I will talk about a passage for this special Shabbat, called Shabbat Hachodesh, where we read a passage from Exodus 12 that instructs us to have a roasted lamb shank with bitter herbs. In fact, it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to eat our meal on Passover with bitter herbs. We even say a special blessing over the maror, the horseradish, on Passover.
My question for us tonight, to help us all prepare for Passover, is: Why would God command us to praise, uplift and say thank you for bitterness? After all, bitterness is not Jewish.
When I think about what it means to be Jewish, I think L’Chaim! Judaism celebrates life! We use sweet wine, never bitter wine. Whether it’s Shabbat, or Passover, or a wedding, only sweet wine. When I think of Judaism, I also think about Shabbat, resting and enjoying time with family, not being bitter.
Still, Judaism is a realistic faith. We know that life is not always good. There are low points and bitter moments. Yet, so many of our traditions involve turning the bitterness into sweetness. For example, on Purim, we take the bitter memory of Haman and we transform it into something delicious called hamentashen. On Sukkot, we prepare for the bitterness of winter by smelling the etrog with it sweet fragrant aroma.
On Passover, it is a mitzvah to thank God for the bitterness with actual bitter food. The more bitter the better. In fact, don’t buy the red horseradish, which is sweetened by beets. Buy the hottest white one you can find and take a full spoonful of it at your seder. Let your sinuses burn and your eyes tear.
Let’s face it: maror by itself is not good. And friends, it is really unusual within the Jewish landscape to celebrate something that is not good.
And yet, that is exactly what we are to do on Passover…celebrate bitterness. Maybe the best way to understand this is to apply a beautiful Kabbalistic teaching. The teaching says that whenever we reach a good point in our lives, we are to say thank you to God for everything that got me there: for the high points and for the low points. In fact, it is very likely that without the bitter low points we would not be where we are, nor would we be as equipped to handle life, as we now are.
Shortly after I had surgery to remove a very scary but very early tumor in my pancreas, my primary doctor called me up and reminded me of how lucky I was to have had this detected at such an early stage. He said, “Do you know that when you came in that day complaining of unusual nausea, with no other symptoms, I asked why you felt compelled to come in. You told me of some significant stress in your life.” The doctor went on to say, “I believe that the stress exacerbated your nausea; otherwise you probably would not have been prompted to come in. And had you not come in and had the blood tests, you would have dismissed the uncomfortable feeling and then–months down the road–we would have been facing an entirely different scenario.” Then he said, “You must understand that whatever caused you that stress saved your life. You may want to find a way to say thank you to what or whomever aggravated you.”
We all have known bitterness in our lives–sickness, loss, troubles–they just might be the cause of saving our lives and enriching us in the long run.
When thinking about the holiday of Passover, the bitter helps us recall the slavery in Egypt. We would not be who we are today without that slavery. It concretized our peoples’ feelings of solidarity with one another. It taught us one of the most important values of the Jewish people: to care for the weak and the stranger. In fact, the most repeated positive command in the Torah is to be compassionate to the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
As Rabbi Rafi Rank taught, this holiday moves us to acknowledge the bitterness in our lives–to integrate it and learn from it. It may be a rarity within Jewish practice, but it is a treasure we should all value.
Blessed is our God, for giving us bitterness. Amen.