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Should We Relish the Approval of Others?

Sunday, 14 April, 2019 - 9:12 pm

Question of the Week:

 

I am confused about the maror, the bitter herbs eaten at the Seder. I always thought you are supposed to use horseradish. But then I heard that we should use cos (or romaine) lettuce leaves, with a spoonful of fresh horseradish. I eat lettuce with my salad all year round, and it is not bitter. If anything it is quite sweet tasting. So why eat lettuce to commemorate the bitterness of Egyptian slavery?

 

Answer:

 

Your sweet lettuce is a sneaky little vegetable. Its nature very closely parallels the Egyptian slavery experience.

 

Indeed, lettuce has a gentle and pleasant taste. That is because we pick it when it is young. But leave the lettuce stalk in the ground for a bit longer, and it turns bitter and pungent. What starts off sweet turns sour in the end.

 

This was the exact course of events in Egypt. When the Israelites first arrived, they were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. Pharaoh invited them to assimilate into Egyptian culture and society, to participate in the economy and become fully-fledged citizens.

 

The trusting Israelites accepted his offer with relish (another reason we eat horseradish). They felt honoured to be accepted by such an illustrious nation as Egypt. And this was their downfall. They had been duped. The friendliness was a façade. Once Pharaoh had seduced the Israelites into a false sense of security, he could easily manipulate them. Before long, the welcome turned bitter, and the Israelites were enslaved. Like the lettuce stalk, it all seems sweet at first, but given some time it turns bitter.

 

So at the Seder we eat lettuce. Not the mature and embittered type, but rather lettuce that is still tasty and sweet. Because the sweet lettuce is the bitterest of them all.

The Egyptian slavery did not start when the Egyptians turned on the Israelites. It began when the Israelites felt comfortable in Egypt. That country, the superpower of its day, was renowned for its low moral standards. When the Israelites became impressed by Egypt's grandeur and lured by its sweet welcome, they lost something of themselves. When they took pride in the attention they received from a tyrant, they lost their freedom. 

 

The same is true to this day. When as Jews we measure our self-worth by how much our neighbours accept us, when we fawn for the approval of those whom we deem more powerful than us, when we shape our identity to conform with what others expect of us, we have sold our souls into slavery.

 

We eat lettuce to remind us that not all that tastes sweet is indeed sweet. A bitter herb, no matter how sugar-coated, is still a bitter herb. There's nothing as bitter as selling your soul to be accepted, and there's nothing as sweet as the freedom to be yourself.

 

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Moss 

 

Sources:

Shulchan Aruch Harav 473:30, Shu"t Har Tzvi 119

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