September 16, 2019

The bitter truth: A Sephardic reflection on maror

Can the simple arrangement of the Passover seder plate reflect a deeper message? In the Sephardic tradition, the answer is a resounding yes.

Unlike the standard Ashkenazi version sold in Judaica stores or printed in most haggadot, the Sephardic custom is to place maror — the bitter herbs — at the very center of the seder plate. This follows the arrangement of the “Ari,” Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic from Safed.

While this custom is not really discussed by any Sephardic authorities, it is interesting to note that in his “Hazon Ovadia” commentary to the haggadah, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, remarks that Maimonides lists the “three things one must say the night of the seder” as “Pesach, maror and matzah.” This order differs from the standard “Pesach, matzah and maror” text, in that it places maror before unleavened bread, and, once again, places maror at the center.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue. In our own unique way, we have come to embrace bitterness and to own it as a definitive part of the Jewish hard drive.

The Jewish experience is as much about bitterness as it is about celebration, and while that might seem like a paradox to many, Jews understand that life is lived between a laugh and a tear. Thus, on the very night when we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we have no problem embracing bitterness and recognizing its ongoing presence and centrality in our collective story.

The Sephardic custom of centralizing the maror helps us tell our larger story. By placing maror in the middle, we allow ourselves to expand the haggadah to include our bitter experiences beyond Egypt. We remember the Babylonians and Romans, our inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms under the cross of Christianity, and the episodes of jihad against us under the crescent of Islam. The bitter herbs include Auschwitz and Treblinka, and they also allow for reflection on the contemporary resurgence of anti-Semitism.

All of these experiences have stood at the center of our journey as a people. While this seems painful, Judaism does not shy away from the bitter truth of our history. Only by telling these stories can we contemplate their lessons as they affect us today. There is no better night to do so than Passover, a night when we are commanded to conduct a meaningful symposium through telling stories.

Placing bitterness at the center of the Passover experience makes sense: Throughout Jewish
history, bitterness has played a formative role in our story, our texts and our dialogue.

While we recount our own collective bitter experiences, we also place maror at the center so that we remember the bitter suffering of others. Centralizing maror reminds us to not persecute strangers, immigrants or refugees, “because we were strangers in Egypt.” While gazing upon the maror at the center of the seder plate, we see the bitterness of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and modern-day Syria. We feel the pain of orphans, widows and all of the weakest members of our society.

Our own maror does not create bitterness toward others; quite the contrary, it sensitizes us to the suffering of others, and calls upon us to step in on their behalf. On Passover, we centralize the maror of others alongside our own. Their maror becomes ours.

Bitterness takes on different shapes and forms. It’s not always about persecution. For example, even though the bitterness of slavery precedes the sweetness of freedom in the Passover narrative, we shouldn’t forget what comes next. It turns out that the Israelites’ first moments of freedom are defined by a different kind of bitterness: “Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah” (Exodus 15:22-23). So our freedom gave birth to a bitter experience — and it certainly wasn’t the last one in the Bible.

This paradigm has followed us into our modern-day experiences. The Holocaust preceded the creation of Israel, and while Israel marked a new era of Jewish independence, it also gave birth to a new set of bitter realities, which have held center court in today’s headlines. These new “bitter herbs” include fierce debates over war and terrorism in Israel, deep political and social divisions within Israeli society and growing political alienation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Our internal divisions over religious issues, the Palestinian question and current U.S. politics are no less bitter than our fears of Iran and Hamas.

So on Passover, as these debates often take center stage, we ask: “Maror zeh?” — “These bitter herbs that we eat, what do they recall?” The Sephardic custom of placing maror at the center of the plate arguably makes this the most important of all questions asked during the seder.

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the international director of the Sephardic Educational Center.