Shabbat HaGadol: The Bread of Jewish Resilience

This Shabbat is called Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat” and it is always the Shabbat that directly precedes Pesakh. Today, erev Shabbat, is 9 Nisan, and as 15 Nisan begins next Wednesday at sundown, Jews everywhere will observe the beginning of the oldest Jewish holy day.

Our tradition urges us to see every day as a new thing; how much more so our observance of the most ancient of our holy days! We are to see ourselves as freed from slavery next Wednesday evening. It’s interesting to consider our parashah in that light; in parashat Tzav we read instructions for different sacrifices and then of the initiation of the priests into their brand new role. It’s a time of excitement and enjoyment of a brand new shiny thing: our new Mishkan and the service which will be carried out within it.

So much is on the cusp, so much is promising. Yet where human beings are concerned, there is still so much room for error, and for suffering.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם

And God said to Moses, “I will be what I will be,” continuing, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘I Will Be sent me to you.’” (Shemot 3.14)

This erev Shabbat coincides with March 31, Transgender Day of Visibility, a national day to celebrate our Trans loved ones. Advances in science, society and culture have made each of us more able to express our inmost sense of being Who We Will Be, and this is holy, as we each explore the ways in which we reflect HaShem, the I Will Be.

Young eager spirits reach out for this promise of Being, and so we see all around us the newness of Spring, as all of us are invited to grow more and more into our wholeness, to seek out and bring into the light all of what we are meant to be. Only the murderous Pharaoh alive in our own age would call this evil; 

Each of us is called upon to see ourselves as being freed from slavery on Shabbat HaGadol. The most important mitzvah we observe on this Festival of Matzot is eating matzah. Only the unleavened form of the staff of life is permitted to us for the eight days of Pesakh. Even the gluten free must join the Jewish people in observing the mitzvah, for it is an important identity marker of Jewish belonging. 

Why does so much depend on matzah?

During the darkest days of the Inquisition through which so many of our people suffered and died, the Inquisitors kept careful notes of the testimonies of witnesses who outed them. Non-Jewish servants often reported on the foods they saw their employers eating as the most obvious signs of covert Jewish practice. Matzah was literally a matter of life and death; to be oneself most fully was to risk death at the hands of bigots. 

Thanks to a brilliant cookbook called A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews published in 2000 (and now available for $12 on Apple Books!) we have access to amazing matzah recipes that are both ancient and utterly new to us.

I invite you to make this matzah in solidarity with our ancestors and with our current loved ones who were and are targeted simply for being who they must be. Share the making with children and/or adult students of Judaism if you can, since embodied mitzvot are the single most effective way to share spiritual tradition. And don’t worry if it doesn’t come out crispy and dry; no Jew ate matzah that resembled a cracker until modern concerns with possible hametz caused Ashkenazi Jews to make their matzah thinner and thinner, drier and drier…see the history here: History of (Ashkenazi) Matzah and you think that all matzah is that way because your experience is what we call Ashkenormative (unless you are of Sephardi or Mizrakhi or Habesha or other non-ashkenazi descent and are still in touch with your culture).

And however you get the matzah that you taste next Wednesday night, whether with other Jews or by yourself, whether homemade or a store-bought brand, taste it with intention. See if you can taste the spiritual moment of feeling that you will be what you will – yet – Be. 

Matzah recipes:

Pan de Pascua – from a 1503 recipe

Karaite Matzah – from our sibling Karaite Jews

Make Your Own (Soft?) Matzah – just like our sibling Yemenite Jews


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