A Matter of Taste by Rabbi Zell
Rabban Gamliel deserves far more credit than he deserves. When he remarked: Whoever fails to mention these three items on Pesach, has not fulfilled his obligation: Pesach (the pascal sacrifice)
Matzah and Maror, he was on to something big. Aside from the fact that these three food items are commanded as “exodus foods” in the Torah (Exodus 12:8), Rabban Gamliel undoubtedly was aware that Pesach, Matzah, and Maror share yet one other feature in common. Having lived in an age of epicureanism, how could he have not. Just as contemporary society has introduced us to the notion of “comfort food”, it might very well have been that society in the days of Rabban Gamliel had the notion of “taste food”. Aside from sage, rosemary, and thyme – or onions and garlic if one is of Eastern European ancestry – there are far more basic tastes known to society. And it is specifically the Pesach seder that serves as a reminder of these basic tastes.
Maror serves as an excellent reminder of the excruciating back-breaking labor, forced upon our enslaved ancestors. Maror also serves as an excellent reminder of what it means to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. And leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth is totally independent of physical enslavement. Leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth is all about behavior and relationships. One can live in the freest society known to mankind and still experience being left with a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Disillusionment causes a bitter taste in one’s mouth. So too does lack of respect and appreciation. When you give someone the shirt off your back, only to receive a kick in the pants in return, you are left with a bitter taste in your mouth. If maror is the ultimate symbol of bitter taste, then maror is in no way limited to our ancestor’s Egyptian experience.
It should come as no surprise to learn that I do not watch Cooking Shows either on television or any other medium. Yet even I can tell you that it does not take seasoning or spice for one to ask: “What’s in the kitchen? It smells so good!”. Meat roasted over an open flame creates a flavor to savor. Just as the Torah commanded our ancestors to partake of a kid or a lamb at our farewell dinner upon departing from Egypt, so too did the Torah specify that our ancestors prepare that kid or lamb roasted over an open flame. Kid or lamb, whether boiled or stewed kid was unacceptable. Why was G-d so adamant that the entrée at the farewell dinner had to be prepared over an open flame? Perhaps to indicate that rather than see the repast solely as a dinner bidding farewell to slavery, the repast should also be regarded as a dinner welcoming freedom. If the maror left our ancestors with the bitter taste of enslavement, then the Korban Pesach or Passover sacrifice was designed to whet their appetite for the freedom that awaited them.
A good many of us in our society tend to be judgmental when it comes to the judgment of others. “He has absolutely no taste in women” we proclaim after female after female one befriends fails to meet our standards of acceptability. “She goes out in public, dressed like that! Where is her sense of taste?”, we ask incredulously. However accurate we may be in our assessment; our remarks are likely to achieve nothing more than tongue wagging. Tongue wagging was not on the list of reasons our ancestors were redeemed from Egyptian enslavement. Ideally, G-d wished to create a people who had no taste for bearing false witness, found gossip to be in the poorest of taste, and looked upon idolaters as tasteless worshippers when it came to deities. Few would argue that matzah qualifies as a tasty dish to set before the king. Eaten alone, Matzah has little or no taste. Symbolically, matzah with its bland flavor is a desired and necessary taste for participants of a divinely inspired society.
Pesach, Matzah, and Maror were more the menu of a Farewell Dinner of our liberated ancestors. Pesach, Matzah, and Maror are more than the three staples to be discussed at the Pesach seder. Pesach, Matzah, and Maror tastefully remind us of a society liberated from shackles unknown to any tyrant in our people’s history.