What Matzo Can Teach Us

We are in the middle of celebrating Passover.  That means lots of matzo.  If you’ve ever eaten matzo, then you’ll notice that it gets on everything.  I have crumbs everywhere.  It is the perfect food for fairy tales and getting lost in the woods.  Someone is bound to find you if you leave a trail of matzo behind you.  There is no effort involved either.  Just eat it.  The crumbs will fall far and wide as you crunch and walk.  And the gluten-free matzo? It’s even worse!

It is a revered food during Passover.  In fact, for those not familiar with the customs of Passover, observant Jews do not eat any leavened products during Passover.  If you, for example, feel like eating a sandwich, then it’s a matzo sandwich.  No bread allowed.  Matzo only.  All leavened products (chametz) are removed from the house as well prior to the beginning of Passover.  Hello, matzo.

Some more interesting facts about matzo:

  • Matzo has holes to keep it from rising.
  • Shemurah (guarded) matzo is carefully watched from the time the wheat is cut until the matzo is finally baked so that no moisture causes it to be chametz (leavened).

There are people in the world whose job is to guard matzo.  I find this fascinating.

Matzo is the only Passover food with two meanings.  It is the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom.

Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about this duality of meaning.  Many a rabbi has tried to explain why matzo must mean both for us.  Here, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg explains it thusly:

Just as shunning chametz [leaven] is the symbolic statement of leaving slavery behind, so is eating matzah the classic expression of entering freedom. Matzah was the food the Israelites took with them on the Exodus. “They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes [matzot], for it was not leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared provisions for themselves.” (Exodus, 12:39.) According to this passage, matzah is the hard bread that Jews initially ate in the desert because they plunged into liberty without delaying.

However, matzah carries a more complex message than “Freedom now!” Made only of flour and water — with no shortening, yeast, or enriching ingredients — matzah recreates the “hard bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3) and meager food given to the Hebrews in Egypt by their exploitative masters. Like the bitter herbs eaten at the seder, it represents the degradation and suffering of the Israelites.(The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

The Jews ate matzo daily while they were slaves in Egypt.  In a far less powerful metaphor, think of matzo like that awful cafeteria food you ate in middle and high school.  That one particular menu item that was particularly disgusting.  “What are they serving today? Oh that? Never mind.  I’ll wait until I get home to eat.”   And today, whenever you hear the words “mushroom hotdish”, you shudder just a little bit.  Not just because it looked like something from an alien autopsy, but also because, in a moment of sensory recall, you are transported back to adolescence.  You are able to keenly recall and feel your past insecurities and fears swell within you.  You remember what it was like to be 15 again.  You are 15 again.  Mushroom hotdish is your casserole of affliction.

What if, however, you were given mushroom hotdish while on the cusp of attaining everything you had ever hoped for? Bursting with anticipation and exhilaration! There is no time to prepare a real meal so you reach for what’s available.  You must eat.  Mushroom hotdish it is.  The power of this moment overrides everything and, suddenly, awash with exhilaration and endorphins, you hastily scarf down this once dreaded gelatinous concoction.  You are off to embrace something sizeable.  Much bigger than anything you could have ever dreamed.  That moment before you cross the threshold into the Promised Land, you take one last bite of mushroom hotdish.  The gates open, and you’re off and running.  The taste of the casserole of freedom still fresh in your mouth.

Same ingredients.  Different meanings altogether.  This is how it is with matzo and chametz.  Rabbi Greenberg goes on to explain:

Matzah is, therefore, both the bread of freedom and the erstwhile bread of slavery. It is not unusual for ex-slaves to invert the very symbols of slavery to express their rejection of the masters’ values. But there is a deeper meaning in the double-edged symbolism of matzah. It would have been easy to set up a stark dichotomy: matzah is the bread of the Exodus way, the bread of freedom; chametz (leaven) is the bread eaten in the house of bondage, in Egypt. Or vice versa: matzah is the hard ration, slave food; chametz is the rich, soft food to which free people treat themselves. That either/or would be too simplistic. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread. (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

Here is the key point that I want to emphasize because matzo also means something else:

Matzo is a metaphor for our own lives.  It teaches us that if we want to achieve freedom, then we cannot just sit back and let nature take its course. 

The point is subtle but essential. To be fully realized, an Exodus must include an inner voyage, not just a march on the road out of Egypt. The difference between slavery and freedom is not that slaves endure hard conditions while free people enjoy ease. The bread remained equally hard in both states, but the psychology of the Israelites shifted totally. When the hard crust was given to them by tyrannical masters, the matzah they ate in passivity was the bread of slavery. But when the Jews willingly went from green fertile deltas into the desert because they were determined to be free, when they refused to delay freedom and opted to eat unleavened bread rather than wait for it to rise, the hard crust became the bread of freedom. (The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

Matzo was and will always be hard and dry.  Mushroom hotdish will always be disgusting.  What creates this dialectic then? The determination to be free.

Rabbi Dennis Ross explains it beautifully:

The Passover journey isn’t just a historical journey; it’s one we take every year of our lives. And it isn’t just an external journey; in order to have true meaning, it needs to change us on the inside, where freedom really matters. The difference between slavery and freedom, between constriction and expansion, is our state of mind. Eaten grudgingly in a state of oppression, matzah is the bread of affliction; eaten joyfully in a state of liberation, matzah is the bread of our freedom.

There is a connection, our rabbi taught today, between Purim and Pesach, the last holiday of the Jewish year and the first holiday of the Jewish year. Both holidays celebrate stories of how we were oppressed, and almost wiped out, but we survived and even flourished. In the Purim story, told in the Megillah of Esther, God’s name is never mentioned. In the Passover story, told in the traditional haggadah, Moses’ name is never mentioned. There’s something to be learned from this apparent disjunction.

Purim teaches us that redemption happens when people take their destinies into their own hands, and transform themselves. Passover teaches us that redemption happens when people trust completely in God, and allow themselves and their circumstances to be transformed. These narratives are mirror images of each other, but both are true — and the real truth of redemption lies in the dialectical tension between the human-focused Purim story and the God-focused Passover one.

Just like the real truth of matzah lies in the dialectical tension between the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom, and how we continue to be transformed by spending a week in the synthesis between them. (Velveteen Rabbi)

There is real tension between understanding our role of self-determination and dominion in our own lives and trusting God completely.  There is indeed a very real dialectic.  Nowhere in the Tanakh or even in the New Testament do we see a personality who was rewarded for lying back and doing nothing.  We see a lot of tentative, hesitant characters.  Gideon.  Even Moses in the beginning.  We also see characters who got it done.  Joshua.  Mordecai.  Esther.  Ruth. Naomi.  The point being that if you want something better, then you have to fight for it because leaving Egypt, be it real or metaphorical, is no easy feat.  You have to fight for what you want.  Be prepared to be uncomfortable.  Be prepared to face off with enemies.  Be ready to move fast.  Be ready to do things that you never thought you would.

Esther wasn’t sure that she would succeed.  Gideon was the smallest man from the weakest tribe.  Moses was a horrible public speaker.  And here we are today retelling their stories and seeing ourselves in them–attempting to see where God intervened and humanity acted to form this almost perfect collaboration.

What is one to do then? I think we can look at Abraham for that answer as described in Genesis 12:1: “And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  Essentially, Abraham packed up everything he had and headed…uh…due West? East? Huh.  Where exactly?  God did not tell him, but Abraham acted anyway with what he did know.  Was it risky? Yep.

But isn’t it riskier to do nothing and hope that someone comes along one day to rescue you? 

I’m thinking about it.  I’m looking to strike that balance.  I have seven days of matzo to eat.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.  Every Passover this very question arises to discuss again, but it’s a worthy topic because we all have our personal Egypts.  And we all long for freedom.  Discovering our role in that process might be the key to freeing us from that which masters us.

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