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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Getting Ready for Pesakh: What Is Matzah Really About?

It’s all about the matzah. The official name – and the  most ancient name – of our early spring festival is Hag haMatzot, the Festival of Matzah. Eating matzah is a mitzvah, an obligation for every Jew.

But what if you’re gluten free? this question has of course already been answered by the matzah industry: along with all the other varieties, there is gluten-free matzah. 

But this answer is too quick; it doesn’t give us the chance to really consider the question of why we are obligated to eat matzah in the first place. After all, we are forbidden the five grains wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. but we can eat them in a matzah state, so the grains themselves are not forbidden….or what?

The answer is not about food at all, but about our illusion of control over our lives. Why matzah, i.e. unleavened bread, bread that is entirely untouched by the natural or introduced presence of yeast? 

Our ancestors lived and died by the amount of grain they were able to grow, gather and store by the hard work of their own hands. One can imagine the care they took in storing grain so that it would last as long as possible without fermenting, which after all is the first step in rotting.

And now imagine a festival which is marked by the cleaning out of all the old grain – even before all the new grain is gathered in. This is our ancestors’ ultimate leap of faith – to clean out the old before the new was a sure thing was to demonstrate with their lives and that of their families that they trusted the old Jewish idea that if you take great care with today, tomorrow you will be all right. 

Note the interesting verb tashbitu in the verse: 

שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ–אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל–מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.

“Eat matzah for seven days – on the first day, tashbitu the grain from your houses. Anyone who eats hametz from the first day until the seventh day will be cut off from Israel.” – Exodus 12.8

The root of tashbitu is sh.b.t. This hint of Shabbat is possibly meant to remind us that we are not in control; that you can store up all you want against life’s contingencies, and you are not, after all, going to be able to control them.

The eating of matzah is a positive obligation; that is, it is not about avoiding something, it is about doing something. In this case, eating matzah. That is why, even if you are gluten-free, it is incumbent upon you to do so. There is something profoundly symbolic about it, so much so that if you do not, you cause yourself to be alienated from the People of Israel. You do not have to eat matzah all week; just an amount equal to the volume of an olive. If you absolutely cannot eat even that small amount, it’s best to get together with others who are truly gluten averse and 

invest together in one box of that expensive gluten free matzah – one more way to demonstrate our absolute need for each other, and the reason why the idea of being cut off from Israel is the worst outcome our ancestors could possibly envision

Pesakh: You Must Remember This

The following is a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet, a book of his insights into the parashat hashavua and also the Jewish holy days. This is an edited paraphrase of one of his Pesakh teachings:
 
Of Pesakh it says, “this day will be a remembrance for you” (Ex.12.14) and “so that you remember the day you came out of Egypt” (Deut.16.3), and “Keep the [holy days of] matzot” (Ex.12.17). Memory is a point within, one where there is no forgetfulness. It has to be “kept” i.e. guarded lest it flow into the place where forgetting occurs. That is why “keep” and “remember” are said in the same single utterance at Sinai.
Every Pesakh the Jew becomes like a newborn child again, just as we were when we came out of Egypt. The point of remembrance within us is renewed. That primal point within is like matzah, which is just the dough itself, simple, with no fermentation or expansion. On this holiday of matzot the inner point, simple, unchanging, pure, is renewed. We do the work of Pesakh when we fulfill the command “keep the [holy days of] matzot” by taking time to renew the point within, the point of memory. We ask questions of others who remember what we remember, what we need to remember in order to guard that inner flame that keeps and guards us, as we keep and guard it.
 
It is striking that in this teaching, it is very clear that human free will, and human agency, are vitally important to human wholeness. We are not meant to passively sit back and wait for Divine grace to shower down upon us, nor to spend all day praying for it. Abraham, the quintessential Jew, defines that identity by his act of moving forward into uncharted territory – purposeful movement toward meaning is itself part of the creation of that meaning. During Pesakh we are reminded that in order to become the Jewish People, the communal equivalent of Abraham’s journey had to be repeated. Once again we ventured forth, purposefully moving toward meaning, into an unknown future that we would summon by our own act of moving forward.
 
As it is said, nishmat adam ner Ad-nai, “the human soul is God’s candle”. As one Rabbinic commentary observed, it is as if God said to Abraham, “go, and light the way before Me.” As we move forward into the future, as we choose the acts that make our lives meaningful, we bring illumination not only to ourselves, but to God as well. We are partners in a Covenant that truly calls upon us to keep and guard the meaning of our people’s memories through our own actions – and the meaning of those memories will stand or fall upon our willingness to take on that responsibility.
 
May our acts bring the illumination of our memories to bless our shared future.
hag Pesakh sameakh v’kasher, may your Pesakh celebration be joyful and fit.