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Remembering the Bitter and the Sweet

matzah and bitter herbs

“That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.” — Exodus 12:8

The Torah portion for this week is Bo, which means “come,” from Exodus 10:1–13:16, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 46:13–28.

As final preparations for the Exodus were made, God went over the instructions with Moses and Aaron. On the 10th day of the month, the people were to select a one-year-old sheep which they would keep for four days and then slaughter. They were to take the blood of the sheep and place it on the doorpost, then roast the sheep and eat its meat. Specifically, they were commanded to eat the meat together with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, also known as matzah.

The Jewish sages ask why were the children of Israel commanded to include bitter herbs together with the festive lamb and matzah? The lamb and matzah were both symbols of redemption. The blood of the lamb would save the Israelites from the plague of the death of the firstborn, and the matzah would be the bread of the Exodus because there was no time for the dough to rise.

Even today, matzah is the symbol of the Passover celebration. So why dampen the festivities with bitter herbs? Their bitterness symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. But why are they included just as the slavery came to an end? Wouldn’t the people want to leave that horrid experience behind?

Remembrance is an important aspect of Judaism. There’s a well-known joke that asks: “What is the summary of every single Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” This is followed up with: “What is the summary of every Jewish fast day? They tried to kill us, they won, let’s fast.” Indeed, Judaism is replete with both holidays and fast days that commemorate events of the past. In fact, when it comes to the Exodus, we remember it every single day in our daily prayer services!

The stress on remembrance isn’t because we are stuck in the past and unable to move on; it’s because we can’t move forward without remembering where we have been. We remember joyous times because they remind us to be grateful for everything we have. And we remember the bitter times because they remind us that everything can be gone in one moment if we aren’t careful to protect what we have.

As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remembrance is not optional – it’s a necessity!

It’s a good idea for all of us to spend some time remembering. Take out some old photographs, read an old journal, or reminisce with others about your shared experiences. As you review the bitter and the sweet, the hard times and the joyful moments, you will find the experience both inspirational and educational. Sometimes the greatest advice for how we should live in the present comes from the voices in our past.


With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President


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