By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"Whoever did not say these three things has not fulfilled his obligation: Pesach, matza, and maror." [Haggada].
Pesach and matza are a way of giving thanks for the redemption, but what about maror – bitter herbs? Is this also linked to our giving thanks?
The sages commented on the verse, "On that day G-d will be one and His name will be one" [Zecharya 14:9], that in the distant future we will bless about the bad just as we now recite a blessing for the good that happens. Some people have asked: Will there still be bad things in the distant future? The answer is that this refers to what we see today as being bad, for which we recite the blessing, "Dayan Ha'Emet." In the future the real picture will become clear and we will see that all the "bad" things are part of a good process. We will then retroactively recite the blessing recognizing the good that was done for us, "Hatov V'Hameitiv,"
A perfect example of this is the incident of the sale of Yosef. When this event took place everybody saw it as a bad act, and even Yaacov himself complained, "Why did you treat me badly?" ]Bereishit 43:6]. However, in the end, everybody gave thanks and blessed, "Hatov V'Hameitiv," as Yosef said: "And now, do not be sad and do not be upset that you sold me here, for G-d has sent me before you to provide a livelihood." [45:5].
There is a hint of this idea in the verse, "For it is a decree ('chok') for Yisrael, a law ('mishpat') for the G-d of Yaacov" [Tehillim 81:5]. What seems to Bnei Yisrael to be an unexplained decree is really judgement in the eyes of the G-d of Yaacov. Do you want proof? "See the testimony of Yehosef, when he went out into the Land of Egypt" [81:6]. Just look at what happened to Yosef in Egypt.
The Holy One, Blessed be He, gave good tidings to Avraham in the Covenant of the Pieces. Usually a covenant is a sign of friendship, but in order to create a chosen nation it was necessary to send the people through the melting pot of exile. And therefore the covenant includes a declaration that the nation will descend to Egypt.
"Everybody who expands the story of the Exodus from Egypt should be praised" [Haggada]. This refers not only to one who continues to discuss the story after midnight but also to one who broadens the story to include the descent to Egypt. Therefore, we begin the story with, "At first, our fathers were idol worshippers," in order to be able to tell about the exile which helped refine us.
In the Talmud Yerushalmi it is written that we redeem our firstborn for five Sela'im in order to atone for the sale of Rachel's firstborn, Yosef, for the same amount of money. But this seems problematic – if so, why should Yosef also pay for a firstborn, and to whom should he pay? Is it right that he should pay Levi, who instigated the sale in the first place? The answer is that in the end we owe a debt of gratitude to Levi for selling Yosef. If this had not happened, we might not have descended to Egypt, and perhaps we would not have become a chosen people.
It is written in the Talmud (Pesachim) that the lamb for the sacrifice was carried on the shoulders, as was the custom of the Yishmaelite merchants. Why should we remember the Yishmaelites on the night of the Seder? It must be that we are thankful not only for the redemption but also for the exile itself!
The commentators of the Rambam write that the eating of the "karpas" is a reminder of the "ketonet hapassim" – the striped shirt which Yaacov made for Yosef, which was part of the chain of events that led to Yosef being sold to Egypt. We dip this in salt water in memory of when the brothers "dipped the shirt in the blood" [Bereishit 37:31]. Rashi notes about the striped shirt that it was "fancy cloth, such as 'karpas' (white cotton) in Megilat Esther." All of this teaches us at the very beginning of the Seder that the descent to Egypt was part of a Divine plan, in order to bring the people out as a Kingdom of Priests. And we give thanks not only for the redemption from Egypt, "Pesach and matza," but also for the bitter "maror," for the exile itself.