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.
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.