Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Walk Article-Pesach



Rabbi David Walk


            Most of our Jewish holidays have formal names used in Biblical texts and a more colloquial name used in rabbinic literature and conversations.  For example, the Torah calls the first day of the seventh month (Tishre), Yom Hazikaron or the Day of Remembrance, of course we call that day Rosh Hashanah.  Similarly, the holiday which we call Pesach or Passover, the Torah refers to as Chag Hamatzot.  I think the Torah is informing us that the central observance of this seven day period is the consumption of this funny bread.    At our annual education seminar called the Seder, matzah has the central role.  We begin the program by breaking it, then we spend the whole discussion period alternatively covering and uncovering it; the evening's banquet begins by consuming unbelievable quantities of the stuff, and finally the formal dinner ends with hard-nosed negotiations over its value to different generations.  So, what does this substance actually represent?  Well, here we get into a little trouble, because the core text of the program, namely the Haggadah is ambivalent on the topic.  At one point it is called lechem oni or 'bread of affliction,' but later we say that we have it because it represents the redemption.  Which is it, a symbol of slavery or of freedom?

            Most years I've hedged my bets by claiming that it's both.  When it is whole it reminds us of the speed with which we departed Egypt, and, therefore, represents redemption and freedom.  However, when it is broken it reminds us of what our ancestors ate while slaves in Egypt, and, therefore, symbolizes the bondage.  For this reason when we eat our first matzah at the meal, the custom is to eat from the top whole matzah simultaneously with the middle broken matzah.  This combines the symbolism.  But this year I saw what was for me a new idea, which has changed my thinking about matzah, and so now I'm all in on slavery.

            Every year I try to buy a new Haggadah.  This year I bought a fascinating one called The Mosaic Haggadah, compiled by a dentist from Houston named David Silberman.  Dr. Silberman collected an eclectic group of comments from all sorts of sources.  One that piqued my interest was from master baker Peter Reinhart (watch his TED Talk, trust me).  This dough aficionado explains that the beginning of the bread baking process is akin to murder.  We take these vital, amber waves of grain and kill them, first by decapitation in the field and then we take the life-giving seed or grain and pulverize it into a lifeless powder.  The brutality of it is enough to make one a carnivore!  But here enters magic.  We reintroduce life, almost like Baron Frankenstein, by encouraging this powder to come alive with water, yeast and time.  Reinhart explains that the best breads take 24 hours to prepare and bake, and the word 'leaven' (chametz) really means to enliven.  It literally rises from the dead.  I actually love baking challah, because the springy dough does feel alive in your hands as you knead it over and over again.  I've always felt that this was therapeutic, but I look at it differently now, more mystically.  Reinhart actually says that he compares his dough to the clay from which Adam was made.

            But what about matzah?  We keep it dead.  We stab it with hundreds of holes and bake it in extremely hot ovens before any sign of life can be detected.  We don't allow it to rise from the dead.  What a great metaphor for slavery!  Slave owners thwart any attempt at meaningful life in their slaves.  A good life gives ample opportunities to rise again and again after failure and despair.  Especially in Judaism we believe in second and third chances.  That's what Teshuva or repentance is all about.  No such break is given to slaves.  Slavery doesn't allow celebration over successes which are not theirs, but gives ample time to wallow in failure. 

            This leaves us with a problem concerning the paragraph which equates matzah with redemption.  Raban Gamliel demands that we say:  This Matzah that we eat for what reason? Because the dough of our ancestors did not have time to become leavened before God was revealed and redeemed them.  In other words the speed of the baking mirrors the speed of the departure from Egypt.  So, this quick bread must symbolize the departure and freedom.  How can we reconcile this discrepancy between freedom and slavery? According to the Maharal M'Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Loew, 1520-1609), the slavery was an integral component of the redemption process.  All of this was part of God's plan to bring us to the proper level of devotion to heaven.  This difficult experience prepared us to be properly humble and subservient to God.  At the shores of the Sea, we freely transferred our allegiance and servitude from Pharaoh to God.  No one is so free as to have no commitment to someone or something.  Everyone has an item to worship or be devoted to.  Freedom is the right to choose one's master.  We chose the ultimate Master, who encourages our free will and joins our celebrations of success.  At Mount Sinai we cemented this loyalty to God by announcing na'aseh v'nishma, we will do God's will without even yet knowing what it is.

            All the evil, bondage and pain of the Egypt experience fed into a critical dual lesson.  The first part of the message, which we've already been discussing, is to proffer to God at least as much respect and obedience that we showed to our task masters of Egypt.  The second moral is, perhaps, even greater.  We can never display that kind of disdain for human freedom and dignity.  We must stand up for all who are downtrodden and miserable.  We must teach the entire realm of rulers and citizens, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed, that we all owe total allegiance to the one true God, and that every life must be nourished.  Chag Sameach!