Co-mingling of bitterness and sweetness this Passover

When I was 10 years old, my great-grandfather died early on Erev Pesach. He was buried just hours later (a hurried funeral, to get it in before chag began), and then my family sat down to our first night seder a few hours after that. That year and ever since, the co-mingling of bitterness and sweetness, sadness and joy has been an important feature of every Passover seder for me.

When I was 10 years old, my great-grandfather died early on Erev Pesach. He was buried just hours later (a hurried funeral, to get it in before chag began), and then my family sat down to our first night seder a few hours after that. That year and ever since, the co-mingling of bitterness and sweetness, sadness and joy has been an important feature of every Passover seder for me.

This theme isn't only a personal one for my family, but one that we are all intended to experience, each and every year. When we eat the karpas - the green vegetable symbolizing spring and renewal - we dip it into the salt water of tears. The bitter maror is dipped too, into sweet charoset. The main symbol of the holiday, matzah, does double-duty, functioning simultaneously as "lechem oni" ("the bread of affliction") and also as the bread that didn't have time to rise, reminding us of our journey to freedom. At the Passover seder, we are meant to identify with both the beginning and the ending of the Exodus story, with both the experience of oppression/tears and of liberation/joy.

Last week, I wrote about the sense of renewal that Passover offers, and how this ties into the freshness of spring, as trees that have been dormant all winter now begin a new cycle of growth. In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, we read of yet another sacrifice that marks the end of one chapter and beginning of a new one. This one, the zevach todah ("thanksgiving offering") is featured in Lev. 7:12-16 and also comes into our Passover celebration as part of Hallel (see Psalm 116). The Talmud informs us that there are four situations which obligated a person to bring this offering of thanksgiving: 1) one who has crossed the sea, 2) one who traversed the desert, 3) one who was sick and became healed, 4) one who was incarcerated and became free (see BT Berachot 54b). The Exodus story ticks multiple of these boxes, of course; Dayeinu recounts how thankful we are for each step of the arduous journey we've made. We celebrate having survived these life-threatening crises from the vantage point of the end of the story, and prepare for a fresh start.

As much as it would be lovely to tell the story of the Exodus exclusively while reclining and looking at our travails in the rearview mirror, the seder ritual is not so simple. Instead, our telling is decidedly non-linear, as we zig-zag back and forth between the states of freedom and oppression.

In addition to experiencing Pesach as a new beginning, we also know that we are still in Egypt, in need of an Exodus/liberation story that has yet to unfold. In this place where we find ourselves, the world around us is still unredeemed, and in desperate need of healing and repair.  Egypt is a tragic place to be; we experience oppression at the hands of all sorts of pharaohs, internal and external, personal and collective.

This year, I move towards Passover feeling keenly aware of the bitterness and oppression of the unredeemed world around me. The shootings in Atlanta last week shook me deeply... a stark reminder that this country is still suffering under the yoke of racism (including anti-Asian racism), violent white supremacy, misogyny and toxic masculinity. This week's mass shooting in Boulder compounds the hurt, another stark reminder that even as we begin to emerge from one public health crisis, we have yet to seriously tackle another: the epidemic of gun violence in our country. On top of these national tragedies, many in our community are also grappling this week with the tragic death of a young person closer to home (see below). These tragic losses -- bitter in a way that no amount of horseradish can approximate -- remind us that we still reside in an unredeemed world, and that the work of liberation lies ahead of us.

Finally, this theme -- the co-mingling of bitterness and sweetness, and understanding ourselves to be simultaneously at the beginning and end of the same story -- resonates deeply with the Covid-19 pandemic. In one sense, an end is in sight now, and we can feel how far we've come in our journey over the past year. There is much to celebrate, from the micro-successes of managing our daily lives, to the vaccinations produced in record time. Each of us who has survived this year more-or-less intact may have the impulse to offer a zevach todah, a thanksgiving offering, or at least to sing a hearty chorus of dayeinus in gratitude. And, at the same time, the pandemic has laid bare so many fundamental injustices in our society: the fact that we are swimming in a culture of white supremacy, that we have tolerated poverty and socioeconomic disparity for too long, that inequalities are embedded every single system of our society (e.g. healthcare, education), that there are real challenges to our democracy and to voting rights in play right now, etc., etc. In all of these senses, we are still very much in Egypt, and we must begin the journey immediately towards freedom and human dignity.

The tension between these two poles holds us tight, suspending us in animation during this Passover holiday, while motivation and power hopefully mount within us to fuel future growth and change. As we will sing in just a few days (in "Ha lachma anya," from the Maggid section of the haggadah): "hashata avdei, l'shanah haba'ah b'nei chorin," "this year we are enslaved; next year we will be free people."

May it be so. Wishing you a meaningful and liberating Pesach holiday,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum