Shabbat Pesakh I: What is this Matzah?

Tonight at sundown over 70% of all self-identifying Jews will observe the beginning of Pesakh (Hebrew for “Passover”). At the very least, they will all have matzah, the symbolic bread of affliction, on their tables – gluten free, locally made, even homemade, matzah is the ultimate symbol of the holy day period. Hag haMatzot, “The Festival of Matzah,” is one of the holiday’s most ancient – and most official – names.
This simple bread is paradoxically rich in symbolism. Matzah is made only of flour and water in a rudimentary form, free of yeast or starter. There’s no magic to it, no rising, no crumb or crust. It is the epitome of fast, easy, straightforward. Yet it is so much more than that: when we consider the matzah, called by our tradition not only the poor person’s bread but also the bread of freedom, we begin to see the midrashim (interpretations) that centuries of sages and commentators have drawn from it.
1. matzah in its simplicity teaches us humility. We may find ourselves leading with our accomplishments, and what makes us special in our own eyes, “puffed up” as if with yeast. Matzah invites us to consider our essential simplicity as our most important and precious trait. If you let go of the outer shell of defense that you carry between you and the world, what might happen?
2. matzah is a demonstration of how few ingredients we really need to make bread. Let it help you consider how much – or how little – you really need in other places in your life.
3. matzah is an invitation to trust in abundance and in potential. The original mitzvah (command) is to clear out our dwellings from all the old bread: the starter, the leftover bread, anything at all that is made of last year’s harvest. Imagine yourself as a subsistence farmer in the ancient Near East, glad if you have some grain left in storage after the long hard winter – and now, just before the new wheat is ready to harvest, you are to take those last grains and clear them out. “You shall have no hametz (“leaven”) in your possession.” (Ex. 12.15)
It’s a demonstration of trust that the new harvest is going to come in, the  new grain will be gathered and we will eat, and survive, and live for another season.
In these days of chronic fear, trust is a difficult quality to come by, whether in each other or in the future. And yes, we American Jews have had it good for a while now, so it was easy to be optimistic and these words basically bounced off our hearts. But as the days pass and we come to know some small measure of the stress and worry our ancestors lived with, we come to see how courageous their hope was. How much they suffered, and yet they were still able to defy fear and sadness, and celebrate all that was good in their lives nevertheless.
Matzah is a symbol of poverty and being beaten down; matzah is a symbol of beautiful simplicity and serene trust in all that is good. When you lift it up at your Seder, what will it mean for you?
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Shabbat HaGadol: It’s the Details

This Shabbat is Shabbat haGadol, the “Great Shabbat” which is the last before Pesakh. It is traditional on this Shabbat to spend time reminding ourselves and each other of two things, that neither may take precedence over the other: the meaning, and the details. it’s quite typical in this time of ours to downgrade the details in favor of the meaning, for example to say that it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it. It’s interesting to consider the radically different ancient Hebrew approach, which insists that the more important something is, the more each detail matters.
Every year we do the best we can to balance them, and to preserve both the keva, the form of the Seder and the Passover observances we follow for eight days in the Diaspora (seven in Israel), and the kavanah, the intention and mental focus that lies behind them and is reinforced through them. Every year we discover that the more we take care with the details, the more depth of meaning we find – and of course, the converse is true: the more we care about the meaning, the more we find the details important.
May the details you observe bring meaning to your experience, and may the meaning of your experience of the Festival of Matzah bring delight to every detail.
the details:
1. All foods containing any form of hametz (wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt) should be cleaned out from your dwelling place by 10am on Erev Pesakh, Friday March 30. This observance does not encourage discarding good food, but rather donating where possible; that which is open or otherwise cannot be donated should be sealed and put in an inaccessible area (this can include putting it all on one shelf somewhere (the garage? the basement? a kitchen cupboard?) and covering the shelf with aluminum foil, a sheet, a tarp or whatever.  The mitzvah requires that you not own hametz for the duration of Pesakh. If you don’t belong to a congregation, you can still contact one and ask that your hametz list be added to theirs, which will be legally sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday and then re-bought.
2. the Bedikat Hametz (Searching for Leaven) takes place after the house is cleared of hametz on the night before Pesakh (this year, Thursday night March 29). A guide to this ritual and that for Bi’ur Hametz, burning it) can be found in most Haggadot.
3. It is traditional to recite Yizkor prayers for our beloved dead. Find a shul and ask them when they will be reciting this prayer, which is said only during the Festivals of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur. Join them and remember those you have loved and lost with a community.
the meaning:
1. the central statement of the Haggadah: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
the personal touch: do you have room at your Seder for a guest? it’s a mitzvah to invite guests if you’re hosting, or to get yourself inviting somewhere if you’re not able to host.
2. we were strangers in the Land of Egypt and homeless wanderers for many years.
both near and far: mark the meaning of this teaching by supporting asylum seekers in Israel: #LetUsHelp
3. celebrate freedom by using yours responsibly. We are most free when we are reliably faithful to that which builds meaning and purpose in our community’s life.
what you do matters not only to you but to the Jewish community: On this Great Shabbat and every day, may your Judaism inform your U.S. activism, and your U.S. patriotism be supported by your Judaism. Some of us will make the minyan, others will feel called upon to join the inspiring and wonderful student march against guns. We can’t do anything about the fact that the U.S. doesn’t check the Jewish calendar before scheduling important events, and of course it’s disappointing to be left out. No matter what you do this Shabbat morning, I hope you’ll join in my prayer and determination that marches be followed by voting, and other acts that will, we pray, bring about the change we need.