It is axiomatic to say that food is central to Jewish life. We love our holiday meals: the matzo balls, brisket, gefilte fish and jelly rings. Such is the customary fare at the seders we will observe tomorrow evening. Yet food is also integral to the Jewish tradition. There are blessings for all kinds of food. We say a blessing before eat fruits or vegetables. The blessing is tailored to whether the food grows on a tree, a vine or the ground.
We say a blessing before eating cookies or cake. “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who creates different kinds of nourishment.” For bread alone, the staple of any meal, we recite the motzi. Regardless of the formula the purpose of the blessings is clear. We are to give thanks for the food we are about to eat. We pause and reflect. Before enjoying our meal we say thank you. Food is an enjoyment. Eating is a pleasure. For these gifts we thank God.
Interestingly none of these blessings contain the formula asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu: “…who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us to…” There are only two blessings over food that contain this formula and that are thus viewed as commandments. We recite them at our seder tables. They are the blessings over matzah and maror, over the unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are the only times that the act of eating is viewed as a commandment.
You might say that the reason is clear. When eating matzah, especially after a week, it could only be an obligation that keeps us searching for new and inventive ways to prepare this unleavened bread. As our eyes water and our tongues burn after biting into the horseradish root it could only be a command that calls us to eat this food, and then again on the second night. “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us regarding the eating of the bitter herbs.”
Still it cannot simply be about their taste. This of course is subjective. There are plenty of people who do not like brussel sprouts or broccoli. The tradition still demands that we give thanks and say a blessing in such instances: “Blessed are You… who creates the fruit of the earth.” The question is why is the eating of matzah and maror commanded. There must be a deeper meaning beyond their bitter and bland taste.
Everything arrayed before us on the Passover table helps us accomplish the twofold purpose of the seder: to remember slavery and be thankful for freedom. Each symbol on the table serves one of these two purposes. The wine reminds us that we are free. The grand meal, patterned after the ancient Greco-Roman banquet with its reclining and dipping of foods, recalls our freedom. The matzah and maror point to our slavery. The central mitzvah of the seder is to tell the story of our going out from Egypt, of our traveling from slavery to freedom.
Only those who are free can eat whatever they like, whenever they wish. Eating is of course a pleasure; only on Passover is it a commandment. Thus on this night we are commanded to eat certain foods, even—and especially—those we do not like. By eating these particular foods we are reminded of the pleasures of eating. By making this night different from all other nights, we remind ourselves that we are free. We do so by eating what we do not desire. The essence of the teaching is clear. You cannot appreciate freedom if you have no experience of its opposite.
In an age of unparalleled freedoms this rabbinic insight should gain even more importance. Too often in our own day we take our freedoms for granted. On this Passover we are commanded to pause and reflect about the gift of freedom.
This is why we are commanded to eat the unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Their message is simple, yet profound. You cannot appreciate freedom unless you taste slavery.