ONE of the favourite flavours of seder night is charoset, the brown mixture that sits on the Seder Plate and which symbolises the mortar our ancestors used to build store houses for Pharaoh.
We take the maror, the bitter herbs, which commemorate the bitterness of the Egyptian enslavement, and dip them in the charoset. In my family, it is made from apples, ground almonds, kiddush wine and cinnamon. In the Sephardic tradition, it is made from boiled dried fruits, especially dates. Whatever the recipe, charoset is in no sense bitter, it is a treat, and that is peculiar.
Surely, just as the maror is bitter, so too the charoset, which symbolises the forced labour of the Israelites should also be bitter. Why is it sweet?
A couple of answers derive from different explanations of the meaning of charoset, alternatives to the familiar association with mortar. Rabbi Akiva taught that although the men wanted to cease to have children, and bring the Israelite people to an end rather than have more generations endure slavery, the women were determined to carry on. They took their husbands to apple orchards and made sure more children were born. He pointed to a verse in the Song of Songs, which we read on the Shabbat in the middle or at the end of Pesach: “Under the apple tree I awakened you; there your mother conceived you.” We make charoset out of apples in honour of the women who wouldn’t give up.
A stranger Midrash records that when Pharaoh wanted to kill the boys, the earth swallowed them up to protect them. When the danger passed, they emerged from the soil like fresh green plants, like apples, in fact. In these two interpretations, the charoset does not represent suffering, but endurance and rebirth, and therefore it is appropriate that it is sweet. It is also fitting that we dip the maror in the charoset, because it tempers its bitterness, because even in Egypt, there were elements or moments of sweetness.
But even if we retain the more familiar explanation that the charoset symbolises the mortar in Egypt, I think there are still reasons for it to be sweet. First, it recognises what the Israelites in Egypt achieved. Yes, they were enslaved, and yes their labour was extracted from then by force, but the work itself was real and that cannot be taken away. They built Pitom and Ramses, and after Moses’ first intervention they found their own straw with which to make their bricks. The demands were overwhelming, but they fulfilled and endured them.
There is a parallel with the history of other slave-owning societies. The wealth and material achievements of Greece, Rome and the United States before the Civil War were built on the backs of slaves. Who built the Colosseum in Rome, for example? Jewish slaves. We can, and should, condemn the institution of slavery while recognising what slaves achieved, including our ancestors in Egypt. Their efforts and achievements should not be forgotten, but should be celebrated, including through the charoset.
A second reason that charoset should be sweet is the positive legacy that came from our time in Egypt, in particular the ethical legacy. One of the repeated refrains of the Torah, mentioned 36 times in total, is to love the stranger, and the reason given is very clear: You shall not oppress a stranger, nor wrong him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
It is possible to develop empathy without enduring any of the same experiences as the person we are seeking to empathise with, but it is very difficult. The Egyptian exile and slavery was not just an incidental detail in Jewish history; it was foretold to Abraham, because it is an essential and necessary part of our story. Before we could be given our own land, we had to learn what it was like to be an outsider in someone else’s land, because we too would have outsiders in our midst.
The Egyptian experience was a terrible one, but it also equipped us morally to be sovereign in our own state, so we would treat minorities with respect and compassion. That is an imperative for all nations, Jewish or non-Jewish. How a society treats strangers, outsiders, the non-conforming and unusual is a mark of its humanity and its character. Our ability to behave with decency and with love is a sweet legacy of the mortar of Egypt.
Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton is chief minister and senior rabbi, The Great Synagogue, Sydney.
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