Rabban Gamliel used to say: 'Anyone who has not explained these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation: the Pesach sacrifice, matza, and bitter herbs.'
The bitter herbs are the most straightforward of the symbols. They remind us of the bitterness of the servitude in Egypt - a servitude that was both physical and spiritual.
Of the two, the latter was the more bitter. We descended in Egypt to the lowest rung of impurity. Had God waited any longer to redeem us we would no longer have been distiguishable from our oppressors and thus incapable of being removed from their midst.
But the spiritual servitude was also the more subtle and less easily noticed at first. The lettuce that is perhaps the most frequently chosen type of bitter herb is thus a particularly apt symbol since its bitterness is only tasted after prolonged chewing.
Matza is the symbol of our freedom - again both physical and spiritual.
On the physical level, it is a reminder of how God lifted us beyond the realm of time and space when He gathered us together in an instant prior to leaving Egypt.
It is also the symbol of our spiritual freedom, consisting only of its essential ingredients, flour and water, without leaven to puff it up. Leaven represents the materiality of our existence, that which makes us prey to the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and blocks the expression of our souls.
Our Sages portray the Jewish people as saying to God, 'We seek to do Your will, but the leavening in the dough [figuratively, our evil inclination] prevents us from doing so.'
But what of the Pesach sacrifice? What does it represent and why did Rabban Gamliel place it first among the symbols to be explained?
The Pesach sacrifice represents singularity and unity. Every halacha concerning the offering hints to this idea. Thus the sacrifice had to be a sheep or a goat in its first year of life. It was roasted whole, not cut into pieces. While cooking causes the food being cooked to soften and tear apart, roasting does just the opposite. All the juices flow out, causing the meat to contract and become harder and more solidly bound.
Similarly in eating the sacrifice, it was forbidden to break the bones to suck the marrow. It had to remain as whole as possible. Each sacrifice could be eaten only by one predesignated group (or according to another opinion in one place.)
The sacrifice also represented the essential unity of the Jewish people. A singular people bound to God, Who is One. It had to be a small animal - a sheep or goat - and not a bullock. The Jewish people are compared to a small sheep among seventy wolves. Strike a small animal in any part of its body and the pain reverberates throughout the body, whereas a large animal absorbs the blow at the place of impact.
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And the Jewish people are the same as that small animal. As the antisemites used to say: Strike a Jew in Kiev and every Jew in New York cries out.
Now we can understand why the Pesach sacrifice is the first mentioned symbol. It is, above all, a symbol of God's unity. When we proclaim in the Shema, 'God is One,' we mean that there is no reality apart from His Will.
NOTHING can happen in the world unless He permits it to. The embitterment of our servitude, represented by the bitter herbs, and the rejoicing of our redemption, represented by the matza, are equally reflections of the Divine will, equally part of a Divine plan. The symbol of God's unity must precede the symbols of our enslavement and redemption, for He is the source of both.
Thus the symbols of the Seder refute the Manichean vision of competing forces of good and evil locked in a constant struggle. Judaism asserts that what we perceive from our narrow temporal point of view as good and bad each have a purpose and a common source.
Once all Jews knew this. The symbols of the Seder were only a means of reinforcing belief and giving it concrete expression. Today, however, if we are to judge by what Jews read, these fundamental beliefs are neither known nor accepted. The best-selling work of 'Jewish theology,' in recent years, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, adopts the Manichean vision of a competing forces of good and bad. It rejects the Shema's proclamation of God's unity.
Unable to perceive any possible purpose for human suffering, the author was faced with the choice between preserving God's omnipotence or His benevolence. He chose the latter, but only at the cost of reducing God to a helpless onlooker in the world He created.
God empathizes with our suffering, but can do nothing about it; the forces of randomness are too powerful. (I wonder if the author noticed that the ultimate 'evil,' death, is hardly random; it strikes one and all.)
Not only is this view profoundly un-Jewish, it is absolutely no consolation in the face of suffering. Even God's benevolence is not preserved. If He cannot prevent evil, then why should He receive credit for what we perceive as good.
Pain and suffering can be endured only if placed in a context of purpose and meaning. But that is precisely what a theory of randomness denies. God Himself judges our suffering to be without purpose and commiserates for not being able to help.
By portraying much of what happens as beyond God's control, the author severs the connection between God and the world. Physical existence is thereby emptied of all meaning and the events of our lives are no longer the means of creating a relationship with God.
May we merit the ultimate Redemption this Pesach, and with it a clear revelation of the plan underlying all the events of our national and individual existence, just as our ancestors experienced when they were redeemed from Egypt.