In Passover we bring the garden to the Seder table over and over again. We dip herbs twice, we celebrate the sustenance of wheat, and we praise G-d’s holiness with the sweetness of the fruit of the vine. This is a key part of Passover because it is the holiday of the Spring. In the Torah, it is said to arrive in the month of Aviv, Spring. Passover ushers in the transition from rainy season to dry season in the land of Israel and marks the beginning of the crucial grain harvests that feed the people. The story is one that follows the themes of spring: renewal and rebirth as the people of Israel escape slavery and the dormancy of Egypt to reach for their full potential as a free people. To celebrate spring as we sit inside at a table, our sages found many ways to bring the outside, nature and the garden, “in”, and incorporate them into our ritual.
In our day and age, we have to look for ways to draw ourselves back into the garden and nature. Modern life too easily separates us from cycles and seasons. We miss out on the complications and awesome phenomena that could enrich our lives and touch us spiritually. This is what is behind our TBS garden projects and this is what drives me to look for ways to take what the Rabbis do (bringing the garden to the Seder table) and complete the cycle (looking for seder experiences in the garden.) There are two prime candidates: Karpas (sweet herbs) and Marror (bitter herbs). Both herbs are dipped in a counterpart. We dip Karpas in salt water and Marror in sweet Charoset. Both herbs help us connect with the transition from spring to summer and remind us of the cycles of life.
Karpas, the sweet herbs would seem like the best candidate to focus on growing. There are many herbs we can grow, from parsley, to cilantro, to mint to stevia. They all make beautiful plants that we can harvest and bring ready to sweeten the salt water tears of the Seder table and Exodus story. If you come to Temple Beth Shalom, to our Five Senses Garden and Garden of Eden, you will find sweet herbs, some of which were served at our TBS community Seder.
When I think of planting Marror, two issues present themselves. First, many of us follow the custom of using Horseradish. A high percentage of our ancestors came from Europe, where it is still quite cool at this time of year. There are not a lot of greens around, so Horseradish, a root with its bitter/spicy bite became the go-to for the Marror experience on Passover. Our modern life has further removed us from the bitter herb experience, as we have the option of serving up an herb/plant from a jar. Aside from this physical consideration, there is a spiritual issue to consider. Do I really want to cultivate bitterness by growing herbs to remind us of our ancestors’ pain? In Pirke Avot: one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, while one sin leads to another sin. Does growing the plant that is a symbol of negativity create the same affect? I could really only sense if my act of growing Marror actually brings Marror/bitterness to the world if I tried it. I found some Horseradish root at our grocery and sliced it into rounds. Like the sweet potatoes I rooted for Chanukah, I set the root slices into water, and let them start to grow. Within days, roots appeared from the slice, and leaves were not far behind. Out of the edges of the original piece, new plants erupted into the world, searching for nutrients and sunlight.
It was beautiful to me. Out of bitterness came new life. I remembered a rabbinic teaching in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple. Some just wanted to mourn and lament. Some of the Rabbis declared, “With no Temple we have no sacrifices. We won’t eat meat, we won’t drink wine!” (citation Bava Batra 60b) Other sages countered this aestheticism. If you follow that line of thinking, then we should not eat bread or drink water, both sacrificed in the Temple. “No,” they proclaimed, “If we are trying to help our community recover from destruction, we can’t add to our own pain. We have to move forward, but in a careful way.” These Rabbis offered specific acts of loss, (not finishing with decorations, or completing the plastering of a wall), to show they are still acknowledging the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, even while continuing to live life. For the Rabbis, they wanted our community to embody the value that, while we are not whole and complete, we are alive and moving forward.
So, we keep the bitter herbs on the Seder plate. It is a symbol of not just our slavery and degradation in Egypt, but all of our moments of pain and loss. When we eat them, we quickly add sweet Charoset, to mitigate the bitterness. By returning to the garden, I saw another powerful challenge to the harsh Marror. When given the chance, even the symbol of loss and pain created new life. Rather than adding bitterness, the growing Horseradish brings vitality and growth into the world. We will all face tzuris/challenge in our lives It is our next step after the bitterness arrives, that determines a lot. The Horseradish/Marror with its new leaves and roots sprouting forth, offers us some incredible possibilities.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz