With Passover coming up, I was reading about the various aspects of the seder. There are a plethora of steps in the seder, which means a whole lot of questions. I started wondering about מרור (maror), which are the bitter herbs that one is required to eat during the Passover seder. Where does this practice originate? What does מרור represent? And why are we to mix מרור with חרוסת (charoset), the sweet mix of nuts and fruits?
The practice of מרור comes directly from the Bible (Exodus 12:8). The Talmud expounds upon this practice. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 120a), not only are we supposed to swallow the מרור, but we are supposed to taste it. If the bitterness of the מרור is not tasted, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled. Why do we need to experience the taste of bitterness?
The traditional answer given is that we are supposed to taste a bitterness much like the bitterness that the Israelites experienced while they were slaves in Egypt. While it can represent the bitterness of slavery, Passover is primarily the holiday that represents redemption, which is why Passover is also referred to as זמן חרותינו (literally "the time of our freedom"). Passover is about realizing that exerting free will is the human aspect that liberates us. Part of being free is not being insulated from life's difficulties. In this case, consuming מרור is a reminder that we experience bitterness in life. The world is a cold and dark place. Life can be quite cruel. There is death, injustice, loss, regret, and there are some things we cannot sugar-coat. This is why when מרור is consumed during the seder, we need to taste the bitterness.
Another tidbit here is that חרוסת, unlike מרור, it is optional, i.e., it is not one of the three requirements of the seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:3; Talmud, Pesachim 114a, 116a). What can learn from this voluntary consumption of חרוסת? The Talmud teaches that one of the reasons for the חרוסת is to blunt the bitterness. Taking that insight a step further, the Rabbis are teaching us that the reason that consuming חרוסת is not a commandment because it should be our own choice whether we add sweetness to our lives. Life is a combination of the bitter and the sweet. If life were sweet all the time, it would get really boring really quickly. If it were bitter all the time, we would question the point of life. Redemption is realizing that life requires both, and that we produce our own hope. We do so by choosing how we approach life. When something terrible comes along, how do we make sure we are resilient enough to get through it? When things are going great, how do we make sure that we don't get thrown off if there is a bump in the road? We choose how we react to the bittersweetness of life, and by realizing that we need to make the best of it is a way we can apply the lessons of the Passover seder to our everyday lives.