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. Many skeptics struggle and challenge God’s instructions throughout the process, among the Israelites and even Moses himself.

Moses speaks to God after his first session asking the Pharoh to release the Israelites, and the Pharoh instead increases their burden: – (Exodus Ch 5,v 22-23) “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.”

The technical definition of matzah is “a mixture of flour and water permitted to be mixed and to sit for no longer than 18 minutes. If the water and the flour sit any longer, it is not kosher matzah.” Growing grain and making bread is the symbol of settled civilization itself. It seems that the Egyptians discovered the yeast process that allows the water and dough to sit and rise to become the bread that we love. The matzah is only the first possible stage of any sustainable food, just as leaving Egypt is only the first of many steps in the quest for freedom.

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: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and 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, 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 commended.”
  3. The freedom of time: The enslaved person has no control over his time, man’s most precious nonrenewable resource. This is one of the worst aspects of slavery. A free person owns the freedom of choice – 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 – The halacha – the regulations of an ordered society provided by the divine prescriptions and narratives of the Torah enable and give us the potential for humans to live together in peace and harmony. And this forms the foundation for all Jewish communities and Jewish continuity.

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 who has miraculously managed to free us from slavery.

This is the drama of the seder night. 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, my family and I are grateful for the freedom from oppression we have achieved to date, but we know that 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.

The lessons of the seder remind us to be vigilant about our freedoms and always defend them with zeal.

 

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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