In Praise of Suffering: Reflections of the Sfat Emet
by Robert Lederman
“Maror-Because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our forefathers in Egypt.” (Pesachim 116b)
The Maror that we eat-for what reason? Because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our forefathers in Egypt; as it says in the Torah: They made their lives bitter with hard labor, with mortar and brick, and through all manner of labor in the field; all their bondage at which they made them slave rigorously. The Haggadah
On Seder night in communities across the world, Jewish people will once again attempt to fulfill the rabbinic imperative of “seeing oneself as if he himself went out from Egypt”. The Haggadah itself has been constructed in a way that is meant to enhance one’s ability to do this in the way that we retell the legendary story of the epic journey from slavery to freedom.
One commences with shame and ends with praise Mishna Pesachim 10:4
We fulfill this idea both according to Rav (originally our forefathers were idolaters….) and Shmuel (we were slaves….). and move on through the familiar narrative. With the Maggid completed, we arrive at the more experiential part of the Seder, which includes the eating of Maror, the bitter herb, which we do to remember the bitterness of the experience of slavery under the cruel Egyptian taskmasters.
Tasting the slavery
What exactly should we be remembering whilst we eat the Maror? What is achieved by focusing on the bitterness of the experience? Can we seriously be expected to taste our way into re-experiencing the hardship of 210 years of harsh slavery?
Is the whole shameful part of the Haggadah only there to remind us how bad things were, thus inflating the perceived greatness of G-d’s salvation?
It would certainly appear that way from the text of the maggid:
The Egyptians ill-treated us, afflicted us and laid heavy labors upon us: and we cried out to the L-rd G-d of our fathers Deuteronomy 26:6
“The Egyptians ill-treated us,” as it is said: Come, let us act cunningly with [the people] lest they multiply and, if there should be a war against us, they will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the land.”
“And they afflicted us,” as it is said: “They set taskmasters over [the people of Israel] to make them suffer with their burdens, and they built storage cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Ramses.”
“And they laid heavy labors upon us,” as it is said: “The Egyptians made the children of Israel work with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard work, with mortar and with bricks and all manner of service in the field, all their work which they made them work with rigor.” And we cried out to the L-rd, the G-d of our fathers, and the L-rd heard our voice and saw our suffering, our labor and our oppression.
“And we cried out to the L-rd, the G-d of our fathers,” as it is said: “During that long period, the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned because of the servitude, and they cried out. And their cry for help from their servitude rose up to G-d.”
The overwhelming emotion conveyed through the reading of the citations above, is that we happened to find ourselves in this terrible situation from which G-d in his infinite mercy delivered us.
“The L-rd took us out of Egypt,” not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself
However, the truth is that G-d Himself promised Avraham that his descendants would be enslaved!
And He said to Avraham,”You shall surely know that your descendants shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they shall be slaves and suffer for 400 years. Genesis 15:13
We do not relate to this truth anywhere in the Haggadah. Is this because we feel challenged theologically to incorporate the following proposition of the Sfat Emet ?
…and even all the details of the suffering and the difficulty of the enslavement were according to a special (divine) order (Shabbat HaGadol 5654)
Was G-d himself truly in charge of each and every element of affliction that took place? How can we sit and “thank G-d” for taking us out from the terrible place into which he put us? It would have been better had He never put us there in the first place!
And he goes further still:
…we therefore mention all of this, the enslavement, the outcry and the redemption. The children of Israel give praise on all the parts of the process of the exile (in Egypt) because it is the exile that gave us the strength to cry out appropriately. And this is the reason for the Maror, in order to praise the bitterness itself. (Pesach 5635 )
The Sfat Emet in his writings on Pesach emphasizes that there is no place for sadness on the festive first night of Pesach, Seder night. The Maror itself , the bitterness of our experience is elevated to a Mitzva, not to dwell upon our suffering, but on the contrary, to praise G-d as the ultimate architect of our exile. Because He put us there to discover faith in that very place in which the least reasonable position was to have faith.
The Matzah-Bread of affliction or bread of redemption?
The Sfat Emet (Pesach 5733) discusses the differing positions regarding the symbolism of the Matzah at the Seder. On the one hand, Rashi and the Ramban consider the Matzah as the bread of affliction. The Mahral is vehemently opposed to this position and sees Matzah representing, uniquely, the unleavened cakes eaten by the Jews on as they rushed out of Egypt. The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem 51) applies his thesis even to the broken Matzah held up at the beginning of the Seder over which we recite the Maggid. Matzah was eaten whilst we hadn’t yet left Egypt, but , as he points out, there is no reference in the Torah or the Talmud that the Jews ever ate matzo as slaves in Egypt.
The Sfat Emet skillfully combines the different associations of the Matzah. For him, the bread of affliction is the bread of redemption. Because if G-d could have redeemed us another way, if we could have come close to Him in an alternative more perfect way, then why all the praise about the redemption? The Sfat Emet concludes that the Exile must be considered an essential part of the redemptive process. Indeed, the Lechem Oni reminds us how we were lowly and downtrodden. However, as the Sfat Emet says:
We rejoice that this was our beginning because it was by being in this state that we were able to accept the yoke of the kingship of heaven which brought us to the great heights of the receiving of the Torah, thereafter.
Commencing with shame, ending with praise
The thesis of the Sfat Emet in regard to both the Matzah and the Maror, is that we are invited on Seder night to go through a process of catharsis. We are offered an opportunity to come to terms with the trauma of the slavery experience in Egypt and to see it in a different light altogether. For on this night, the shameful part of the Haggadah is not there to give us the opportunity to mourn, or to dwell in self-pity, for there is no mourning on this holy night. For the Sfat Emet there is only joy. The joy of being able to come to terms with our suffering, to see it in hindsight as an indispensable experience of nation-forming through faith- building in the most challenging of environments. And truly, it is only if we can indeed praise G-d with a full heart for the enslavement in Egypt that we can truly give praise for the redemption.More