Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Princess and the Bitter Herbs: An Exodus Fairy Tale

In this manner you shall eat it:
with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.
And you shall eat it in haste. God’s passover. (Exodus 12:11)
Freedom, much like birth, takes a long time to gestate. But once it arrives, it happens all at once, with little warning. That’s the way it’s described in this week’s portion at least. The haste of the Exodus, the urgency of redemption, is emphasized in the text again and again, making one wonder - why? If this was the divine plan all along, couldn’t it have happened a little slower?
Of the many rituals of Passover, haste has gotten the best symbolic real estate, captured for eternal consumption in, well, a cracker. For one week we take in the hastily prepared bread of our ancestors, who “took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders” (Exdous 12:34).
R. Yosef Hayyim
Baghdad, 1834-1909 
Those who love the lachrymose version of Jewish history might get excited by the fact that a few verses before that our dry crackers get paired with bitter herbs: “with matzah and bitter herbs they shall eat it” (Exodus 12:8) Yeah, we used to have some juicy lamb to place in between those two – but since the Temple burned down we’ve even lost that. Such is the fate of Jews: bitterness and constipation.
Enter the Ben Ish Chai, aka Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, the great rabbi and storyteller of Baghdad. The Ben Ish Chai gives Matza and Marror a different twist. In his imagination, these condiments do not represent suffering upon suffering, but rather are the edible crystallization of an argument between God and the Jewish people, or rather a husband and his father in law, engaged in a battle for the princess:

The Princess and the Bitter Herbs
As told by the Ben Ish Chai, R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad

There once was a King who had an only daughter, of marriageable age.
The King did not want to take for her a husband from among the aristocracy; concerned that such a man would be haughty and not submit himself to the princess’ wishes. Instead he found a poor young man from a good home, wise and virtuous.
The King brought him to the palace and told him: “It is my will that you take my daughter’s hand in marriage!”
“I will gladly perform your command, O King,” said the poor boy, “but please give me time to go inform my parents.”
“Never!” responded the King. “You shall not leave my home! The marriage must take place immediately and without hindrance… Today!”

Upon hearing this, the King’s servants blanched.
“Your Highness,” they said “We cannot possibly produce a wedding feast fit for a King today. We need at least twenty four hours to prepare…”
But the King remained obstinate. Finally he confided in them: “This young man has found his way into my heart. In fact I am quite smitten, and I cannot hold off this marriage even one day! Moreover, I am concerned that if he goes home, they will advise him against the marriage, saying ‘Why marry a King’s daughter, to whom you will be subordinate?’. He might change his mind… We must perform this marriage right away.”
Preparations began immediately. The haste was so great that the servants baked the bread before it had a chance to rise properly. They ended up serving unleavened matzah at the marital banquet.
Meanwhile the groom was dressed in the most expensive regal clothes, and the marriage was performed that very day. The King had ordered that the groom’s old clothes be taken and stored in the royal coffers. The groom, clever lad that he was, noticed what was being done with his old clothes, and understood the King’s intentions. During the meal he snuck a piece of the matzah bread and had it stored among his old clothes.

A few weeks after their marriage, the young couple began to quarrel. The groom spoke angrily at his new wife, the princess, and refused to look upon her any further. Upon hearing this news, the King called the groom in to rebuke him. As he entered, the groom saw his old clothes sitting by the throne.
“Do you not recall your days as a poor man?” demanded the King. “These clothes should remind you of the suffering you were in before I took you in! And now, after the honor that I have bestowed upon you for the sake of my daughter, you repay me by distressing her and speaking harshly to her?”
The groom did not flinch: “Your Highness, unfold the clothes and see what is among them.”
The clothes were unfolded and a piece of bread fell out.
The groom picked up the bread and said:
“Your Highness, this is the bread! Baked before it could rise, served at the marital banquet, all because your desire to bring me into this family was so great that you couldn’t wait one more day! Therefore why do you speak of my days in poverty, for just as these clothes are reminiscent of my poor status before you found me, so this bread testifies to the haste and the enormity of your desire in me…”

The parable is that in order that we not become hubristic in our current state of great privilege, God commands us to eat Bitter Herbs, to recall our days of poverty.
And yet we wrap those bitter herbs in Matzah, to recall the great haste and the enormous desire that God had in us, to bring us into marriage with his Torah.
R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, Orach Hayyim Haggadah pg. 210 (my faulty translation, MZ). Needless to say, a feminist reading of this story would be a lot of fun here…

To hear the Ben Ish Chai tell it, God has many grievances regarding our treatment of his beloved daughter, the Torah. Indeed, our marriage with Truth is on the rocks. We scarcely look at her, often snubbing her requests and instructions, ignoring her needs and forgetting how privileged we are to share our lives with her.
Ben Ish Chai and family. His Indian butler stands behind him.
And yet, we have some claims on God, too. We were pushed into this freedom and bullied into a covenant. To put it differently, we were born into this world in great haste and with little choice. Whatever Torah means – law, ritual, teaching, freedom or truth - She was thrust upon us. We in turn, have gotten into so many quarrels with her that we can barely look at eachother. Do we even recognize her at this point? We surely don’t buy her flowers anymore
In this dysfunctional family, we are admittedly doing a pretty miserable job. Accustomed to our privilege, it doesn’t hurt to remember just how lucky we are to be in this situation. Recalling our modest roots shakes off our sense of entitlement. Yet it is equally important to remember the haste with which we eloped in the middle of the night, on our way to the chapel which is Sinai. Thus we wrap the call for bitter modesty in the bread of romance and devotion. Hopefully this is a recipe for healthier relationship with our princess in the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

משל העני והמלך
ר' יוסף חיים, הבן איש חי, הגדת אורח חיים, עמ' רל-רלג

טעם אכילת הכורך בליל הפסח שכורכין המצה והמרור ביחד ואוכלין:
פעם היה מלך שהיתה לו בת יחידה, ולא רצה לקח לה חתן בן מלכים, כי יש לו גאוה ולא יהיה נכנע אליה
על כן בחר ליקח לה אחד עני בן טובים,
וימצא לו עני מרוד ממשפחה רמה והיה חכם גדול ושלם בכל מדות טובות,
ויאמר לו: רצוני לתן לך בתי לאשה.
ויאמר לו העני: הנני מוכן לעשות כדברך אדוני המלך, אך תן לי זמן עד שאודיע לאבי ולאמי.
אמר לו המלך: לא תצא מפתח ביתי, אלא אעשה החפה בלתי עכוב כלל.

אמרו לו עבדיו: אדוננו המלך, סעודה של חג גדולה כיד המלך, צריך לה הכנה לפחות לילה ויום.
אמר להם המלך: זה הבחור ישר בעיני ונכנסה אהבתו בלבי מאד,
ולא אוכל להתאפק לעכב הארוסין והחפה אפילו יום אחד,
ועוד אני חושש פן יהיו מיעצים אותו שלא לקח את בתי,
באמרם: "מה לך להדבק בבת מלכים, ותהיה כמו עבד נרצע אליה",
ואפשר כי בעצה זו יטו את לבב הבחור.
לכן ארצה לעשות הדבר הזה מהר עתה.

ואז הכרחו עבדי המלך להכין הסעודה במהירות,
ומרב המהירות כי דבר המלך נחוץ, אפו את הלחם מצה כי לא חמץ כדי להכין הסעודה.
והחתן ילבישו אותו בגדים יקרים מאוד, ויעש החפה אותו היום ממש.
ויצו המלך שאותם הבגדים הישנים של החתן יקחום ויקשרום במטפחת ויניחום באוצר המלך למשמרת.
והחתן מחמת שהיה פקח גדול ראה שהבגדים שפשט הניחום באוצר,
והבין מה היתה כונת המלך בדבר הזה.

ולכן בתוך הסעודה לקח חצי ככר לחם מצה מן השלחן
והניח אותו הלחם בתוך הבגדים הישנים שלו השמורים שם.
והנה אחר החפה נפל איזה דברים בין החתן ובין אשתו בת המלך,
וידבר עמה קשות ולא רצה להביט אליה.

ויקרא המלך להוכיחו על הדבר הזה
ויצו המלך ויביאו את בגדיו הישנים מן האוצר.
ויאמר לו המלך: זכור תזכור את ימי העניות שלך שהיית עני מרודף?
ואלו הבגדים המעידים על עניותך בעת שלקחתי אותך לחתן!
ועתה אחר כל הכבוד והיקר הזה אשר עשיתי לך בעבור בתי אתה מצער אותה בדברים?
אמר לו: אדוני המלך, פתח את הבגדים וראה מה יש בתוכם.
ויפתחום וימצאו בתוכם חצי ככר לחם.
אמר לו: אדוני המלך, זה הלחם מסעודת החפה אשר הכינות לי והנה הוא מצה ולא חמץ,
הנה הוא יעיד על גדל התשוקה שהיה לך בי,
שלא יכלת להתאפק אלא מהרת לעשות תכף ומיד,
ועל ידי כן גם הלחם היה מצה שלא היה זמן להמתין לו עד שיחמיץ,
ואם כן למה על ימי העניות תדבר, דהא כמו שהבגדים האלה מעידים על ימי עניי
כן הלחם הזה יעיד על התשוקה שהיה לך בי.

והנמשל הוא כדי שלא תזוח דעתנו עלינו בראותנו שעתה אנו בטובה גדולה, הקדוש ברוך הוא מצווה עלינו לאכול את המרור שנזכור ימי עניותנו.
ואילו אנו כורכין המרור במצה, שאנו עושין במצה זכר למהירות, לתשוקה שהיה לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בנו לזווגנו בתורתו.
ר' יוסף חיים, הבן איש חי, הגדת אורח חיים, עמ' רל-רלג