February 23, 2020

Matzah, en route to freedom

Why matzah? It is an improbable symbol for such a grand holiday. With none of the embracing symbolism of a sukkah or the beauty of a Chanukah menorah, the unassuming cracker is the centerpiece of Passover. 

The rabbis identify the matzah with humility. Unlike bread, which is puffed up, the matzah lays flat, shorn of ego. Its very modest nature gives it power. Like the Western Wall (which, come to think of it, matzah resembles), lack of grandeur is the message. But significant as the insight may be, the essence of Passover is not really humility, and we do indeed eat bread the rest of the year. 

Another interpretation is that matzah represents our tradition’s capitalizing on every spiritual opportunity. Pushed out of Egypt, rushed and frightened, the Jews baked. Although the product was uninspired, Jewish tradition made matzah the cornerstone of Passover. Matzah memorializes the truth that every experience, no matter how ephemeral, lacks a precious charge of spiritual significance.

Yet spiritual readiness, vital though it may be, is not the central message of Passover. Pesach is the festival of freedom. Why should the matzah take pride of place among all the symbols of the seder in the Jewish collective consciousness?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once had an exchange with his aunt and provocateur, Mary Moody Emerson. She was a severe and brilliant goad to the young Emerson. Typical of her teaching was her advice to her young nephew:  “Scorn trifles; lift your aims: Do what you are afraid to do.” Once, Emerson copied into his notebook something his aunt said to him —
“ ‘Hurry’ is for slaves.”

To be a slave is to have no control over your own time. Slaves cannot do what they wish — they do the will of the master. The Israelites baked matzah because they had a brief moment, a slice of time, the beginning of true freedom, but they were not yet there. Matzah is the sign of a people about to be free.

The desert was hot, scary and lonely. But it granted the Jews time, which is the essential luxury of true freedom. If you control your schedule, if the priorities are largely of your own making, you are free. We always say we “need” to do this, we “need” to be there. But most of the time, it is a choice — an important, sometimes urgent choice — but still a choice. That is what it means to be free.

As we sit at the Passover seder, spending the evening telling our story, we are enacting the message. A free woman or man has hours for a meal, but a slave does not. The matzah is the bread of affliction but also the bread of transition — from being a slave to liberation into the service of God.