The poor bread of Pesach
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 10, 1998
Tonight Jewish families all around the world - in many cases three generations together - will gather to celebrate the Seder. No holiday so centers around the family, and that is as it should be, for the Seder is about the transmission of historical memory from one generation to another. The primary commandment of the night is relating the story of the Exodus: 'And you shall tell your son on that day, saying..."
We do not just recount past events; we relive them. The leader of the Seder tells his children his personal exodus - 'on account of what the Lord did for me in my going out from Egypt." The purpose of the Seder has not been fulfilled, in the words of the Haggada, until 'each person views himself as if he himself left Egypt."
In the cycle of the Jewish calendar, we stop at various 'stations" in time. On Seder night, for example, we can tap into the same spiritual potential that our ancestors experienced at the first Seder in Egypt. Through our questions and answers at the Seder, through the recall of our degradation and our subsequent redemption, we attempt to rediscover for ourselves the meaning of events over 3,000 years ago.
The Exodus was accompanied by an unprecedented revelation. God revealed Himself, through the plagues in Egypt, as the all-powerful creator and master of nature.
Even more important, He showed that He is directly involved in human history, and that history has a goal and a purpose. Unless there is meaning and purpose to the world, God's very act of choosing to remove one nation from the midst of another more numerous and powerful nation is unintelligible.
The initial illumination did not last. Like a bolt of lightning on a dark heath, it lit up the ultimate destination while leaving us to find our way in the obscuring darkness. But a residue of that illumination remains, and it is particularly strong on Seder night.
We relive the Exodus both as a nation and as individuals. As members of the Jewish nation, we strive to experience the Exodus personally; as individual Jews we experience our personal Exodus.
On a national level, exile involves loss of our national identity. On the individual level, galut is expressed as estrangement from our essential self.
A slave cannot fulfill his potential because he is subject to the will of his master, and thus has no means of self-fulfillment. As a nation denied the ability to express our purpose, we could only slide into depravity in Egypt. And as individuals, we are enslaved so long as we are thrall to our physical desires.
WITH the redemption from Egypt, we were elevated as a people above the constraints of time and space. The very name of Egypt - Mitzrayim - derives from tzar, meaning narrow or constricted. From the physical and spiritual strangulation of Egypt, we were redeemed in the flash of an eye.
Our parallel redemption as individuals requires transcending the constraints of our physical nature. Our soul - breath of the divine - finds expression in this world only through the medium of the physical body, yet frequently our physical side pursues its own agenda, and hides from our consciousness any awareness of the soul. To the extent that we perceive ourselves in purely material terms, we lose sight of the divine spark that
is our true essence; we are alienated from ourselves.
Matza is at once the symbol of our freedom as a nation and of our spiritual essence as individuals. The entire story of the Exodus is told with the matza uncovered, for it symbolizes the Exodus by reminding us of the how God redeemed us in an instant.
And Matza is spiritual bread. The spiritual world is one of unity; the physical world one of division. The latter is made up of finite blocks of material amalgamated together and finite moments of time, one after the other, measured by changes in the physical world.
Matza reflects the essential unity of the world of the spirit. It is comprised only of that which is essential. The addition of any ingredient beyond water and flour renders it unfit to be eaten at the Seder.
No trace of hametz, the leavening agent in our daily bread, is permitted during Pesach. For hametz represents the material side of man, that which retards and impedes the soul from expressing itself. The Hebrew root of the hametz means to delay and slow down. Our sages portray the Jewish people as saying to God, 'We seek to do Your will, but the leavening in the dough [figuratively, our evil inclination] prevents us from doing so."
Though the matza we eat in place of normal bread is referred to as 'poor bread,' it is we who are poor, not the bread. We are too rooted in the physical world to digest spiritual bread for more than one week a year.
Matza thus reminds us of the extent to which we have failed to elevate our physical body to the point where it can be an adequate vessel for our soul.
Tonight we rejoice at the Seder table after having searched out the hametz from every nook and cranny of our houses and burned whatever remained. May we similarly merit to search out and remove the hametz from within ourselves and thereby experience true freedom.
A happy and kosher holiday to all.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Pesach
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