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The Bitter and the Sweet

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In too many homes, marror, the bitter herb, is not the most bitter thing at the seder table. There are people who suffer from chronic negativity, who drag down those around them and make most interactions unpleasant, often confrontational, almost always negative.

There is lots of new research that has been coming out about how people who live marror lives can cultivate and foster more positive emotions and attitudes. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has developed a theory about accumulating what she calls, “micro-moments of positivity.” She demonstrated that more than a sudden burst of good fortune, it is repeated brief moments of positive feelings that can provide a buffer against stress and depression and foster both physical and mental health

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To foster more positive thinking, she and her colleagues suggest:

  • Recognize a positive event each day.
  • Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.
  • List a personal strength and note how you used it.
  • Set an attainable goal and note your progress.
  • Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.
  • Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.

All their suggestions revolve around amassing positive experiences, thoughts and feelings and having them overwhelm the negative. In other words, have so much sweet charoset that you can’t even taste the marror. One almost didn’t need the research to know we benefit mentally and physically from focusing on positive thoughts.

However, Jewish law comes to a different conclusion and with it, I believe a great insight into transforming ourselves from negative, to positive people. Yes, during the Passover seder we dip the marror in charoset, but we don’t overwhelm or overpower the taste of marror, we specifically eat it to invoke its bitterness.

Why do we eat marror at the seder? After all, it is a night of freedom, joy and celebration. It is one thing to be to start from the beginning of the story despite it being degrading or humiliating, but why harp on the negative? By the time we have completed the essential telling of the story, we have arrived at the miracle of our liberation from bondage to freedom. Why not celebrate with sweet treats; why with bitter marror?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l explains that we eat marror because “within freedom, we are commanded each year never to forget the taste of slavery, so that we should not take liberty for granted, nor forget those who are still afflicted.” The Sfas Emes says we eat the marror to remember that not only were the matzah and freedom from God, but the suffering and bitterness too were part of His master plan and design.

Others say we eat marror to remember that even after matzah, even after being set free, there are bitter moments in life and they too are part of our continued journey and story. Many more answers are offered, but they all have in common that the bitter taste serves to remind us about bitterness.

We eat the marror not to invoke bitterness but to affirm our freedom.

Rav Kook explains that we don’t eat the marror to invoke bitterness; we eat it to affirm our freedom. A slave whose entire life is bitter and only has access to bitter foods no longer tastes anything as bitter. Bitter simply becomes their default taste, their new normal. When we bite into something and an alert goes off, we recoil by its bitterness, we are in fact so incredibly fortunate because it means we are not accustomed to that taste, we have not adapted to that as our reality. Says Rav Kook, we eat the marror not to invoke bitter times or experiences, but the opposite. The fact that we can taste something as bitter is an affirmation of how sweet our lives generally are.

Perhaps we can transform ourselves from negative to more positive people not by overwhelming the negative with positive, but by embracing the negative and recognizing that if that is our negative, we in fact have such positive lives. I am not referring to out of the ordinary negative, deeply painful and devastating situations of life that understandably justify pain, negativity and sadness.

But just as we can be transformed with micro moments of ordinary positivity, I think most negative people suffer from the composite or compounding of micro moments of ordinary negativity. Instead of harping on the small negatives and frustration – someone said something hurtful, they ran out of the Passover product I needed, the traffic made me late, the service at the restaurant was poor — we should stop and remind ourselves that if these are my biggest problems, how much is going right and well in my life. If this is my marror, my bitterness, how sweet my life is.

This past year has been filled with frustration, challenges and for some people real pain. Last Passover, unimaginably, many had the Seder alone, isolated and apart from family or friends. Everyone was locked down, separated and longing for the Passover we have been accustomed to. While our lives have been significantly altered and major adjustments were needed throughout this pandemic, they are a reminder of how blessed we normally are, how much we take for granted and just how sweet our lives are ordinarily.

The great coach Lou Holtz once said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.” The moments of small pain and inconsequential frustration not only alert us that something is momentarily wrong, but they are a very healthy reminder about how much is right.

We are commanded to eat marror to remember that the romaine lettuce or grated horseradish should be the only bitter and negative thing at our table. If we can taste bitter, we in fact have sweet lives for which we should be not only profoundly grateful, but eternally positive people.

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Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida, the largest Orthodox Synagogue in the Southeast United States.
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