THERE'S POWER IN THE MATZAH
Rabbi David Walk
See that title up there? I'm not sure most of us pay attention to titles of the articles we read. Most of the time I try to be cute or attention grabbing in my titles. Once in a while, I think that I get it right, but this one is very meaningful to me. It's a quote from Reb Levi Yitzchak Halevy Horowitz (1921-2009), of course he was mostly known as the Bostoner Rebbe. He said it to me Motzei Shabbat Hagadol in 1990 while visiting North Miami Beach, Florida. The Rebbe, with whom I was not particularly close, had spoken at Seudah Shlishit in a local synagogue about the meaning of matzah. Please, forgive me, but I don't remember what he said. However, when he started talking about baking matzah on the eve of Pesach memories welled up within and I started to cry (like right now as I'm typing these lines, I'm an incorrigible weeper). When I was in high school back in my suburb of Boston, I used to bake matzah erev pesach with the Rebbe in Brookline, MA. We'd bake the large round matzot for a couple of hours and before we rushed away the Rebbe would give everyone a matzah and a blessing for the imminent festival. So, after that Shabbat speech in Florida, I went over to the Rebbe to thank him for his remarks and his influence on my journey to become an observant Jew. And he took my hand and modestly eschewed any acclaim for my transformation, then assigned the credit by informing me, 'There's power in the matzah.'
Yes, indeed, but what is that power? There are three major symbols for this holiday, and they are highlighted by Rabban Gamliel in the Seder; Pesach, Matzah and Maror. Pesach represents the redemption, as it says, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians (Exodus 12:27).' The maror represents the slavery, as it says, 'They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly (Exodus 1:14).' But what about the Matzah? Rabban Gamliel says, 'Because the dough of our ancestors did not have time to become leavened before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any other provisions (Exodus 12:39).' Clearly matzah, together with the Pesach lamb is a symbol of the redemption. Oh really! At the beginning of the Seder, when we broke the middle matzah, we called Matzah lechem oni or the bread of affliction. That's a problem.
So, which is it? Does the matzah represent the bondage or the freedom? Those dear readers who have seen this kind of question in my articles before recognize that the answer is, obviously: both. We have a famous rule about the mitzvah of relating the Egypt narrative: begin with the negative and move inexorably toward the positive (matchil b'genut u'mesayeim b'shevach). So, it makes sense that the first reference to matzah in the Hagadah portrays it as the Bread of Affliction, while its description at the end of the retelling is as an icon of the redemption.
This idea of the matzah standing for both ends of the Pesach tale has support in the structure of the Hagadah. We begin and end the magid section of the Hagadah by discussing Matzah, and we start and finish everyone's favorite part of the Seder, namely the meal, by eating Matzah in copious amounts. But there's an even more powerful example of the dual nature of the Matzah embedded in our behavior of the night. When we begin our meal with motzei-matzah, the best practice is to consume part of the top whole matzah and the broken middle Matzah simultaneously, because the whole Matzah embodies the shleimut (wholeness) achieved in redemption and the broken Matzah represents the broken state of the slave. To get the whole Pesach experience we eat them together.
But it's still a stretch for us to think of the Matzah as exemplifying the bondage, because the Torah calls our Festival of Freedom, Chag Hamatzot. We're commemorating the celebration of Matzah. We must look at the problem in a new way. There are two symbols of the slavery-the Maror (bitter herb) and the Matzah. One is bitterness the other affliction. What's the difference? When God informed Avraham of this impending exile, the verse says: Know for sure that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13). There is enslavement and affliction. The Maror is the enslavement, which embittered their lives (Exodus 1:14). The Matzah is the affliction. We notice something remarkable about the affliction. 'But the more the Egyptians afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew stronger, so that the Egyptians dreaded and were exasperated by the Israelites (1:12).' Unlike the bitterness, the affliction made our ancestors develop a strength and resilience, which served us well in Egypt, and ever since.
While our forebears consumed these hurriedly baked crackers as they triumphantly marched out of the Land of the Pharaohs, they made the most amazing observation. We triumphed through the wonders of God, but we survived because of a spirit and strength born of this experience symbolized by this inflexible bread. We found the voice to cry to our Maker in this Bread of Affliction. We are still made of sterner stuff than the world around us, because of those survival skills honed in the brick pits of Egypt. We still experience our affliction and our redemption united in the same mouthful. A zeissen Pesach!