By Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten
President, Bikur Cholim
As we sit down at the seder, we find ourselves immersed with symbolism of slavery, suffering, freedom, and the Exodus. We are mandated to recall the days when the korban Pesach was eaten with one’s family together with matzah and maror, as they spoke well into the morning hours on the events that surrounded yitziyas Mitzrayim. For millennia, the institution of the seder has incorporated imagery in the haggadah text and the activities at the seder; most notably, this symbolism is seen in the four kosos of wine, matzah, maror, and the zeroah. Over time, additions by our Sages were included in the seder and on the ka’arah; from the charoses, karpas, and beitzah, and even the practice of walking around the table to commemorate the journey of the Jewish people. Everything at the seder represents a facet of Jewish life from the past, present, and future.
For many years I wondered about a specific item on the ka’arah that seemed superfluous: the charoses. The Mishnah in Pesachim (114a) records the use of charoses as an integral part of the seder stating, “…they bring before him matzah, chazeres, charoses…even though charoses is not a mitzvah. Rabbi Eliezer b’rebi Tzadok says charoses is a mitzvah.” The Talmud Bavli (Pesachim 116a) offers two explanations as to why charoses is a mitzvah: One is given by Rebbi Yochanan, who explains that the charoses serves to remind us of the clay and mortar used by our ancestors when they were slaves in Mitzrayim to build the cities of Par’oh.
The charoses plays such an integral role in the seder that generations of Sages have stipulated recipes and ingredients, and each family, region, and lineage has their own customs in its preparation. The Torah describes early on in sefer Shemos the role of mortar and bricks in the life of bondage while in Mitzrayim.
“Vayemareru es chayeihem ba’avodah kashah, bechomer uvilvenim uvechol avodah basadeh eis kol avodasam asher avdu vahem befarech. – They embittered their lives with hard work, with mortar and with bricks, and with every labor of the field; all the labor they performed was crushing labor.” (Shemos 1:14) This posuk is used by Rabban Gamliel and is recorded in the haggadah to explain the purpose of the maror. It would appear that Rabban Gamliel is of the opinion that the maror is all-encompassing and speaks to the pain, suffering, humiliation, and loss experienced in Mitzrayim.
That being said, why did the Sages see it necessary to create a food mixture such as charoses to be symbolic of the cement and clay used to form bricks? Doesn’t the maror include the symbolism of chomer uvilvenim – mortar and bricks? I would like to offer an answer to this question that I believe speaks to the heart of many. At the beginning of parshas Shemos the Torah teaches us, “…vayiven arey miskenos le-Par’oh…. – And they built treasure cities for Par’oh…” (Shemos 1:11) These treasure metropolises represented the wealth of Par’oh and the Egyptian dynasties. More so, these cities also represented the lost treasures of Jewish parents; their innocent children who were crushed and became part of the building materials used in the construction.
After Moshe rises to a leadership role he approaches Par’oh with the demand,“…koh-amar Hashem Elokei yisrael shalach es ami…. – So said Hashem, the G-d of Yisrael, send out my people…” (Shemos 5:1). Par’oh responded harshly to this request by denying the Jews straw for their bricks, demanding that they maintain their production quota, and increasing the labor and burden upon them. Moshe then turns to Hakodosh Baruch Hu and asks, “…Adonai lamah hare’osah la’am hazeh lamah zeh shlachtani? – My Lord, why have You harmed these people, why have You sent me?” (Shemos 5:22)
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 5:27) describes Moshe’s conversation with Hashem in greater detail, “…mah ichpas lach b’osan hanusnim tachas habinyan.” Moshe asks the Ribono Shel Olam, “Do you care about the children buried under the buildings?” Meaning, what about the innocent lives that became part of the clay and mortar, forever cemented with and in between the bricks? What about those who were lost and have become mere memories to their parents? Moshe is asking Hashem the question that crosses the mind of every man and woman of every generation: Why is it that tzadik ve ra lo, rasha ve tov lo? Why do bad things happen to good people?
The Ribono Shel Olam never answers Moshe Rabbeinu’s question; in fact, this question has never been answered in all of Jewish history. Yet despite Moshe not receiving an answer, he continued to lead the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim and throughout their 40 years in the desert. The families who lost innocent loved ones stayed the course in their emunah and bitachon , experienced the geulah, kriyas Yam Suf, and matan Torah, while carrying the silent burden of an unexplained tragedy.
The charoses is not superfluous to the maror, rather it has unique purpose. It is a reminder of lost treasures of Jewish parents whose children became part of the brick and mortar. It is a reminder that their memories are not forgotten, but honored. It is a reminder of the unanswered question of why the innocent suffer. The charoses is a testament that yitziyas Mitzrayim happened without this question being answered, and that our future redemption will come without it being answered as well. May this year’s Pesach ease the burden of this unanswered question, and may we never lose sight that the geulah sheleima is within our reach.