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Jewish Journal

The mitzvah of maror

by Linda Cohen

April 4, 2012 | 11:53 am

“The most unfortunate thing that happens to a person who fears failure is that he limits himself by becoming afraid to try anything new.”

Last year, while attending a seder on the first night of Passover, three words in the haggadah caught my eye. Now we partake of the “mitzvah of maror.” The mitzvah of maror.

I had been connected to the world of mitzvahs for the past several years, and in fact was just finishing work on my book “1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life.”

But the mitzvah of maror didn’t quite fit into my idea of small acts of kindness — holding the door open for a stranger, for example, or dropping a few coins into a tzedakah box.

I started my “1,000 Mitzvahs” project after my father died in December 2006.

My father and I had struggled in our relationship for years and though I knew he loved me, we’d not been able to find a place where we were both happy. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we both knew there was never going to be another chance to say what had to be said and move forward. I remember him asking me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” Neither of us knew why. Nonetheless, that last year of his life was a complete gift for both of us. When he passed away, my busy life as a mother, wife and entrepreneur came to a screeching halt. After his death, I took a “spiritual sabbatical” to work through the unexpected grief I suddenly felt and came out of it resolved to embark upon a project: perform 1,000 acts of kindness — mitzvahs — to honor my father’s memory.

I started a blog called 1,000 Mitzvahs to track the journey. I wrote the stories of my day, the simple everyday actions that I took — like thanking someone for a job well done, folding laundry for a friend on bed rest or giving my tickets to a lecture series away to a stranger — and the discoveries I made during these simple moments. The mitzvah stories became the tapestry of my days and weeks, and the project helped me move through the grief I’d felt. From the beginning, the mitzvahs were simple and duplicable. I didn’t set out to save the world. I don’t even profess that any of my 1,000 small actions stand out as particularly important. But cumulatively they did shift my thoughts and attitudes and did alter the course of my life. I discovered that by getting more conscious about the actions I took every day and noticing these daily opportunities, they began to show up more often in my life.

As the “1,000 Mitzvahs” project wrapped up, a rabbi suggested I write a book to share what I had learned after grief. His suggestion pushed me to step further out of my comfort zone with my personal project and pursue the idea of writing a book to share my story.

And now, on Passover night, I was confronted with this strange mitzvah of eating bitter herbs. I began thinking of the symbolism of maror, the bitterness of the herbs reminding us to think about the slaves in Egypt. As I ate my matzah and maror, I had an interesting realization and found that this mitzvah of maror had another symbolism for me.

When I was a child and we celebrated Passover, I remember getting to the part of the seder where we were supposed to eat the maror and feeling very unhappy. I was a picky eater and as a child didn’t eat anything spicy. I never willingly put the maror in my mouth. I would put the tiniest bit on the matzah, not even enough to actually taste anything bitter and would eat the matzah so quickly no one would notice that it didn’t even have a hint of bitter herbs on it. As children, we are told what to do and what not to do all the time. Oftentimes this creates a fear of trying new things. For many people, this can create lifelong limitations on our ability to step through fear and engage in new opportunities. Eating the maror was like that for me when I was a child. I was afraid of the experience and not able to see that the bitterness was something I could learn to tolerate, perhaps even enjoy someday.

In my 20s and 30s, I attended many seders. Some were held in relatives’ homes, some in the family homes of college friends. Each year, when we got to the part of the seder where we needed to taste the maror, I would reluctantly add a small dab of bitter herbs on my matzah, always ready to swig it down with a giant gulp of water as soon as the sharpness hit my throat. This, of course, defeats the purpose of actually experiencing and tasting that bitterness.

By my 30s, I was swept into unchartered territory in my life. I was newly married and we relocated to a different part of the country. I became a mother and began raising children and learning that parenting is one of the most unknown journeys we’ll take on in life. As I sat pondering the idea of the mitzvah of maror during the Passover seder, I finally realized it is not only a reminder of the bitterness that our ancestors felt but also the evolution that we each make as human beings during our lives.

This year when we make our seder, I look forward to putting a heaping teaspoon of maror on my matzah and thinking about how, in my 40s, I have done things I never dreamed I could do in my life — like writing a book, starting a new business, and sharing a personal story of grief and healing. Forty isn’t a time for fear; it’s a liberating, freeing time that seems to correlate with the idea that anything is possible. Facing our life full on, grappling with its joys and sorrows has become a daily part of my life. Bitterness has to be present in our lives to have joy.

This Passover season, I hope you will think of the mitzvah of maror as an opportunity — a reminder that while we do have bitterness in our lives, allowing ourselves to experience some of that bitterness or fear might actually have unexpected lessons as well.

Enjoy your matzah and maror!

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