Matzah, Passover, and Freedom

 

This ancient Aramaic ditty begins the Passover story as told in the Haggada, the traditional text commonly accepted as the guide for the seder ritual.

Ha lahma anya di achlu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim
Kol dihfin yeteh ve yehchol
Kol ditzrich yehteh veyifsach:
Hashatah hacha
Leshana haba, b’ara d’Yisrael!
Hashana avdeh
Leshana haba, bnei horin!

Translation:

This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread
which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in want share this bread.
As we celebrate here, we join with our people everywhere.
This year we celebrate here.
Next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are still in bonds.
Next year may we all be free.

Matzo bread

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his version of the Pesach Haggadah:

“Matza represents two things, the simple food of enslaved people and the bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in haste.”

However, the matzah also has profound and less well-understood symbolism.

Nothing about the story of the enslaved people of Israel escaping their bondage is predictable or straightforward. The steps are many and strange, and the people are called on to follow Moses’ instructions as God inspires him. However, throughout the process, there are many skeptics, even among the Israelites. And Moses himself challenges his God, wondering what exactly is going on!  Here is what the Torah text reports after Moses’ first encounter with the Pharoh, asking him to give his subjects a break, to release them to worship their God in the desert and instead, the Pharoh increases their burden, insisting that now the slaves will have to provide the straw for making bricks themselves.

 “Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Why have You harmed these people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name. He has harmed these people, and You have not saved Your people.” *1

The technical, i.e halachic/rabbinic definition of matzah, is “a mixture of flour and water that is mixed and allowed to sit for no longer than 18 minutes”. If the water and the flour are left to sit any longer than eighteen minutes, it can not be considered “kosher” matzah.

What does this definition of matzah have to do with freedom? Indeed what does grain have to do with freedom? 

Growing grain and making bread is the symbol of settled civilization. The reason Jacob, also known as Israel’s family, first arrived in Egypt was because of the famine that had overtaken North Africa and all of what we now call the Middle East: Egypt; due to the wise counsel of Joseph, the Hebrew son sold into slavery who rose to be Pharoh’s administrator, Egypt had figured out a way to store grain for the benefit of all Egyptians for just such an event. Egypt, the centre of the civilized world, had also discovered the yeast process of fermentation, allowing water and grain flour to sit and rise to become the bread that we love. Matzah is the first possible stage of bread, settled civilization’s sustainable food. But just as matzah is the first step to creating bread, leaving Egypt is only the first of many steps in the quest for freedom and ultimate redemption.

The road to freedom and redemption is long and winding and does not end when the Jews leave Egypt. It is only the beginning! This too is symbolized by the matzah.

Many have sought to define freedom.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the American war effort during World War Two, explained that there are four essential freedoms that any free people must always be ready to defend:

  1. the freedom of speech,
  2. the freedom of worship,
  3. the freedom from want, and
  4. the freedom from fear. *2

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik parses four additional freedoms that are referenced by the Passover seder. *4

  1. The freedom of children: The ritualized Passover seder meal first and foremost engages the children because our children, who are to carry on our tradition, are the keys to any future freedom.
  2. The freedom of intergenerational continuity refers to Jewish history, seen through the Torah’s canonized texts that are shared in the Haggadah. On this night, it is an obligation for young and old to tell and elaborate on the Jewish people’s story. The Hagada states, “The more one elaborates on the story, the more he is to be praised.”
  3. The freedom of time: The enslaved person has no control over his time. time is man’s most precious nonrenewable resource. This is one of the worst aspects of slavery. A free person owns the freedom of choice: He is free to use his time, hopefully, to his advantage, to advance himself, his family, and his world. And the first commandment given to the Jewish people is to establish their calendar. “This shall be the first of the months for you.”- This commandment is given just before the Israelites leave Egypt and refers to the Hebrew month of Nisan. *2
  4. The fourth and most counterintuitive freedom is the freedom of the law, i.e The halacha – the regulations of an ordered society provided by the divine prescriptions and narratives of the Torah: The Torah, with its 613 laws and many narratives, provides humanity with the foundation for true freedom and the final redemption when all the world will live together in peace and harmony.

The Passover holiday marks the first phase of the march to freedom, the freedom from oppressive conditions. Still, it is not yet the freedom of redemption. That only comes seven weeks later at Mount Sinai when the nation of Israel receives and accepts the Torah and agrees to exchange the wicked slavemaster, Pharaoh, in order to serve the heavenly loving and compassionate God/Father/King who has miraculously managed to free the children of Israel from slavery.

This is the drama of the seder night. And on the second night of Passover, Jews begin to count the “omer,” the forty-nine-day countdown to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates receiving the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Mount Sinai,

Table Served for Passover Seder

On this seder night, and every seder night, my family and I are grateful for the freedom from oppression we have achieved to date, but we know that this freedom is elusive and must be guarded and preserved in every generation and every land.

This year, in particular, we have witnessed the sudden attack on the freedoms of the Ukrainian people by Russian military forces.

The lessons of the seder remind us to be vigilant about our freedoms and to be ready to defend them with zeal at every moment.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Torah, Jewish Bible, Exodus/Shemot, Ch.5 v. 22-23
  2. Torah, Jewish Bible, Exodus Ch.12 v.2
  3. FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech www.fdrlibrary.org/four-freedoms
  4. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Sacred Time Ep 9: Passover – The Four Freedoms Sacred Time Ep 9: Passover – The Four Freedoms

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