(Embellished with thoughts from my daughter Noa’s recent bas mitzvah speech. Yay, Noa!)
If you think about it, charoses is quite strange.
On the one hand, as we learn in preschool and the Rambam writes, “The charoses is a mitzvah from the Soferim, as a commemoration of the mortar that they worked in in Egypt.” (Laws of Chameitz and Matzah 7:11). Charoses represents mortar, slavery.
On the other hand, contemporary recipes for charoses are to make it sweet. Ashkenazi and Italian customs use sweet wine and apples, in Spain the custom is to use apples and raisins. Jews from the Middle East include dates. World recipes may have few ingredients in common, yet we make sure the mixture is sweet mixture.
Even in the gemara (Pesachim 115b), Rav Papa warns against losing the bitterness of the maror under the sweetness of the charoses).
So which is it — is charoses a symbol of slavery, or of the sweetness of freedom?
Thinking about it, though, matzah presents a similar ambiguity. We open Magid by describing matzah as “the bread of suffering which we ate in Egypt”. Yet, later on, when we repeat Rabban Gamliel’s three things that must be said to fulfill the obligation of the seder, we say we eat matzah “because there was not enough [time] for our ancestors dough to rise”.
Again, which is it — is matzah a symbol of slavery, or that Hashem can always save us, in the blink of an eye?
What is interesting is that we see the same duality in the very concept of mitzvah. On the one hand, the root of the word is \צוה\, to command. This is the idea we convey before taking out the Torah, in “Berikh Shemei” (from the Zohar). “I am a servant of the Holy One, blessed be He”. We keep mitzvos for a simple reason. G-d told us to.
However, the word for “commandment” is “tzivui“. Mitzvah is built from the passive form, a less probable conjugation, “that which was commanded”. The late Lubavitcher Rebbezt”l opined that this is an allusion to a second root, \מצצ\ or \מצו\, to connect for nourishment or aim. Mitzvah can be read as the feminization of this root. Which gives us a second definition of “mitzvah” — not only are they “what G-d commanded” but also they provide a focus to our lives, a way to connect to Him. And so the selfsame Zohar we cited in the previous paragraph occasionally refers to the mitzvos as the “Taryag itin — the 613 eitzos, ideas / pieces of advice”.
In a shi’ur on the berakhah before netilas Yadayim, I suggested that this is the reason for the phrasing of berakhos on mitzvos, “asher qidishanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu — Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us…”
ואומר: “וְהַ֨לֻּחֹ֔ת מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹקים הֵ֑מָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹקים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת” — אַל תִּקְרָא “חָרוּת” אֶלָּא “חֵרוּת”, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.
“The tablets were engraved (charus) by G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d.” (Shemos 32:2) Don’t read ‘charus‘, but ‘cheirus‘ (freedom). For no one is more free than one is busy with Torah study.
— Pirkei Avos 6:2
Yet again we see that seeming contradiction. Mitzvos are to be viewed both as an opportunity to draw qedushah and as a straightforward act of submitting to His command.
Mitzvah operates on two levels. Servitude, simple obedience to G-d. Freedom, doing what is in our best interest. And here is where the two ideas we’ve been looking at converge.
“וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֮ אֶת־הַמַּצּוֹת֒” — שלא יבאו לידי חמוץ… רבי יאשיה אומר: אל תהי קורא את המצות אלא את המצוות כדרך שאין מחמיצין את המצות כך אין מחמיצין את המצוות אלא אם באה לידך עשה אותה מיד.
“You will guard the matzos” — that they shall not come to leaven…. R. Avohu says, “It should not be read ‘matzos‘ but rather ‘mitzvos‘. Just as we don’t let matzos leaven, we similarly don’t let mitzvos ‘leaven’. Rather, if one comes to your hands, do it immediately.”
— Mekhilta, Sh’mos 12:17, quoted by Rashi
Matzos, in the guise of “there was not enough time”, teaches us about the proper way to do mitzvos. They parallel because they both share the same dual nature. On the first level, one would assume they are unpleasant, something one would want to avoid. But by the time we’ve explored the subject, toward the end of “Magid“, you can feel how they represent the path to freedom.
The mitzvah is a yoke we accept upon ourselves because we know that Hashem commanded (\צוה\) it to nourish us (\מצצ\). On the surface layer, it is “the bread of affliction” but we eat it by choice, because we trust the G-d gave them to us to help us.
This is a major theme in the Exodus story and why remembering it is so central to Yahadus. As we say in Sh’ma “אֲנִ֞י ה֣׳ אֱלֹֽקֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹקִ֑ים — I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt to be for you a G-d/Legislator.”
And in general, this idea is central to redemption. The megillah writes, “לַיְּהוּדִ֕ים הָֽיְתָ֥ה אוֹרָ֖ה וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה וְשָׂשֹׂ֖ן וִיקָֽר — For the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and preciousness.” (Esther 8:16) The gemara explains:
אמר רב יהודה אורה זו תורה וכן הוא אומר (משלי ו, כג) כי נר מצוה ותורה אור שמחה זה יום טוב וכן הוא אומר (דברים טז, יד) ושמחת בחגך ששון זו מילה וכן הוא אומר (תהלים קיט, קסב) שש אנכי על אמרתך ויקר אלו תפלין וכן הוא אומר (דברים כח, י) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך
Rav Yehuda said: “Light” is Torah, as it also says… “Happiness” is Yom Tov… “Joy” is [beris] milah… “Preciousness” is tefillin.
– Megillah 16b
If that really was the intent, though, why didn’t the megillah just say, “For the Jews there was Torah, holidays, beris milah and tefillin” rather than all these code words?
The truth is, before we had Torah, but could not experience its light. We observed the laws of Yom Tov, but found no happiness in it. We kept milah and wore tefillin, but with no joy or sense of preciousness. This was a basic flaw that Purim ended. Halakhah was fulfilled as a duty, not a love, was what made the leadership unable to direct the masses. But now “קִיְּמוּ וקבל [וְקִבְּלוּ] הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם — The Jews established and accepted upon themselves” (Esther 9:17) As Rava explains (Shabbos 88a) “קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר — they established what they had already accepted” at Sinai. Leqayeim, to establish or make permanent, to allow the mitzvah to be more than an command, but something that lives on in how it shapes the soul. (More on this idea at the blog post “Purim“.)
This is the message of matzah. Redemption is in the conversion of a bread of affliction into the bread around which we united in groups to eat our Pesach offerings.
We also have a key to understanding the apparently oxymoronic symbolism of charoses. It doesn’t represent the bitter servitude of Par’oh, but the sweet work that goes into a pursuit of meaning. We eat it with maror, which does represent the bitterness of true slavery. The contrast of Egypt’s “avodas parech — work to break the body” (c.f. Shemos 1:14) with the ol mitzvos — a “yoke” of mitzvos that allows us to toil productively.
Charoses, like being a “servant of the Holy One” has a surface layer, an appearance of the mortar of slavery. But experientially, it’s very different. Or, as King David wrote, “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב יְהוָ֑ה, אַֽשְׁרֵ֥י הַ֝גֶּ֗בֶר יֶֽחֱסֶה־בּֽוֹ׃ — Taste and see that the Hashem is good; happy is the man who takes refuge in Him. ” (Tehillim 35:9, said in Shabbos and holiday Shacharis)
“Na’aseh viNishmah — we will do, and we will hear.” Doing comes first because only through the first-hand experience can we hear the beauty, the depth, of the Torah.