Maror is supposed to represent the bitterness of slavery, and it does. But this representation is less straightforward and more complicated than a simple “slavery = bad.”
The chronology of the seder is the first clue. We would think it should be maror, pesach, matzah: slavery, sacrifice, freedom. But it’s not. In the traditional Haggadah, maror appears first, before pesach and matzah.
This chronological aberration is a clue to the deeper meaning of maror. It represents the bitterness not of the generations of slavery, but of the Exodus itself, and the terrible things that happened during it: the killing of the first born and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. These events were necessary but terrible. In virtue ethics we would call them “dirty hands” actions.
The Mishna conveys the message this way: As the Egyptians are drowning in the Red Sea, the angels burst into song. God rebukes them, saying, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing hymns?”
But it’s important to note that this sentiment is entirely absent from the Torah itself. It was added only much later, when the Mishna was written. And only after that did we begin spilling drops of wine from our glasses to symbolize the ten plagues.
This is why aror comes after pesach and matzah – after the celebration of freedom. It was only from the safety of freedom that we could recognize the tragedy of the tenth plague and the destruction of the army in the sea. Having just emerged from slavery, our ancestors had no room in their hearts for regret over the Egyptians’ suffering. But maror still symbolizes the bitterness of slavery, because it was generations of slavery that made us unable to respond the way we should have. Suffering and oppression can inflict moral damage and limit our repertoire of emotional responses. Moral damage is one the many bitter harms of slavery.
So this is not only an explanation of why maror is last, but why we eat it at all. It’s there to make us taste the bitterness not of what they did to us, but of what we did to them.
The seder is often compared to a Greek symposium, but in this way it also serves the function of a Greek tragedy. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is the practice ground of extraordinary virtue. By immersing ourselves in stories of tragic heroes facing unusual circumstances, we train our own responses to better enable us to face similar challenges. The same thing is going on at the seder table. This is why we place ourselves personally in the Exodus, and why we say “because of what God did for me. ” Through smell and taste and narrative and emotion, we are experiencing the Exodus as if we had been there. The symbolism of the seder rituals help guide us through the narrative, all the while guiding us toward the virtuous emotional response.
We taste the sweetness of freedom, but not without the bitterness of what we had to do to get there. And we remind ourselves that even when we rejoice in our own liberation, we must also be mindful of its costs.
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