Bitter Herbs - When Luxury Becomes Slavery

By Rabbi Daniel Rowe


Why do we eat Marror?

Vegetation was in abundance in Egypt. The civilisation grew along the Nile, giving it an abundant and, generally, predictable abundant fertility. Its vegetation was so rich that when some Israelites complained to Moses about the harshness of the Sinai desert, they referred to the rich vegetable diet they remembered from Egypt. But the vegetables we have on Seder night must be bitter to recall the bitterness of slavery.

The two are not necessarily distinct. We were enslaved and well fed at the same time. Feeding slaves is an investment in their manpower. It is also an investment in their loyalty. When God promises to remove us from slavery, he talks about bringing us out from ‘under the burden of Egypt.’ Some Chassidic readings point out that the Hebrew could also read: ‘from under the tolerance of Egypt.’ It is hard to keep a slave who is dissatisfied with their condition. But it is human nature to accept and to get used to situations. 

That is true not merely for national slavery. It is true for all sorts of personal limitations that share much in common with slavery.

Transcending personal limitations

During the eighteenth century, both the Chassidic movement and its intellectual rival - the Lithuanian school - brought to the fore an idea that had laid in the background of Torah commentary. That is the idea that what occurs to us as a nation, occurs in microcosm to each individual. The national wars of Israel and their struggle with enemy forces, manifest in inner struggles individuals have with negative and self-destructive drives. The national Temple of God can be manifest in building ourselves as personal Temples of God, and so forth. In those teachings, another dimension to the Egypt saga was brought into focus. 

Each of us, the teaching goes, is also a slave. The Hebrew word for Egypt, ‘Mitzrayim’ has the precise same letters as the Hebrew word ‘Metzarim’ – limitations. Each of us experiences limits that make us do things we do not want to, or prevent us from becoming that which we dream of. Just like Israel became free from Egypt, so too, each Pesach we have an opportunity to become free.

But the first rule of becoming free is to recognise just how damaging the slavery is. God had to take us out from the burden of Egypt, but He first had to take us out from the tolerance of Egypt. How many addicts vaguely recognise that they are in some form of predicament, but live in denial. Facing up to the painful truth that their lives have become devastated and that change is necessary, is a terrifying first, but critical step. The same is true for all sorts of character flaws, imaginary limits and other inner demons that keep us trapped in self-destructive behaviour and mediocre achievement. 

Marror forces us to take the substance of comfort. It takes the vegetation that provided comfort and abundance in Egypt. The bitter vegetable tells us that some comforts, some abundance is what helps us tolerate what should be intolerable. Israel tasted freedom because they were willing to leap to God. They were willing to detach from the present and embrace the dream of the future. But they could not do so until they had fully ingested just how bitter and painful the present actually is.

If true freedom entails a life rooted in the future, then it’s true pre-requisite is to taste the bitterness of what is missing in the present. The Marror leads to the Pesach where we reject the power-systems of Egypt. The Pesach leads to the Matzah where we taste the freedom of timelessness. Together they make the meal that allows each of us to transcend our own personal slavery and to taste the moment of freedom.

- April 6th 2017

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

More in this series

In Conversation with John Lennox | The Rabbi Rowe Podcast #1

Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

Noach: Is Building an Ark Enough?

The Fourteen Step Journey

Journey through Despair

Exploring Rosh Hashana

What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

Stand Up and Be Counted

Return to Eden

I get why God cares about all the big things – what about all those details

The Long Road Back

Coronavirus - is it insensitive to talk about silver linings?

Pinchas - Rise to the Occasion

Many Tribes, One People

The Story of Ruth (Part Four): To Heal the World

The Story of Ruth (Part Three): Relationships and Surrogates

The Story of Ruth (Part 2) - Beyond Givers and Takers 

The Story of Ruth (Part One): The Problem with Kindness

Lighting the Fire of Hope: A Deeper Look into Lag Ba’Omer

Acharei Mos – Kedoshim: When Law Becomes Marriage

Tazria-Metzora: Isolation and the Reconstruction of Society

Why did God put us in Egypt in the first place?

At Home With the Kids

Haggadah Series Part 1: Four Sons or One? What is the Haggadah trying to achieve?

Coronavirus: A Time to Spread Positivity

A Jewish Perspective on Coronavirus and Isolation

11 Thoughts About Covid-19, Isolation, Anxiety and the Greatness Within

Is Religion Behind Most Wars?

The Haggadah Explained - Video Series

Is There Morality Without a Divine Text?

Heated Politics at the Shabbat Table

The Big Question: Why Didn't God Wait for Cameras?

The Four Children

The Four Verses - The Core Message

The 10 Plagues & The 10 Commandments: Decreation & Recreation

Bitter Herbs - When Luxury Becomes Slavery

Happy Purim from Aish

No Need to Move the Goalposts

Related resources

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Veyachi: The Power of Positivity

By- Rabbi Dovid Lichtig

I Closed My Eyes….

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Do Not Disturb

By- Rebbetzin Shalvie Friedman

Vayishlach – Your Money or Your Life?

By- Rabbi Moshe Friedman (Rav Mo)

An Article on Gratitude

By- Rebbetzin Adina Strom

Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Four More Years! Make “US” Great Again

By- Rabbi Gideon Goldwater

Noach: Is Building an Ark Enough?

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Are YOU relevant in a post-COVID world?

By- Steve Herz

Spirituality in the Postmodern World

By- Rabbi Dovid Lichtig

A Vision of Leadership

By- Shira Druion

The Fourteen Step Journey

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Winners and Losers of the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement

By- Aish UK

Journey through Despair

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

An Exclusive Interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

By- Rabbi Ari Kayser

The Sound of Music

By- Rabbi Ari Kayser

Trial by Twitter

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Exploring Rosh Hashana

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Copyright © Aish UK