Parshas Vayakheil-Pekudei (Hachodesh) 5770
Passover is just around the corner (less than three weeks away) and soon enough we will once again be sitting around the Seder table, reading from the Haggadah and chomping on some tasteless matzah, together with our extended families. So to help make your Passover Seder experience even more meaningful, I would like to share with you a fantastic, thought-provoking question that you can throw out to your guests at the Seder, which, together with the powerful answer, talks to the very essence of what we are supposed to be celebrating on Passover.
Ask any Jew you meet to fill in the blank: Passover is the holiday of _________? You are almost certain to hear him/her say the word “freedom”. And it is undoubtedly true that Passover celebrates the freedom of our ancestors from their enslavement in Egypt.
Yet we can ask a serious question on this. Towards the end of the Maggid section of the Haggadah that we read on Passover night, we pick up the matzah and read the following: “Matzah – why do we eat this unleavened bread? Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He, revealed himself to them and redeemed them as it is written: ‘They baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into unleavened bread, for it had not fermented, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay, nor had they prepared any provisions for the way.’ (Exodus 12:39)”
We see from this passage in the Haggadah that the entire reason why we eat matzah on Passover is only because the Jews ran out of Egypt so fast that their dough didn’t even have time to rise and become leavened, so they baked it as matzah.
Now if the main thing we are celebrating on Passover is our ancestors’ freedom, then it would seem that the speed with which they left Egypt is merely a sidebar to the main event, i.e. the actual exodus from Egypt. Yet, as we just read in the Haggadah, this “speediness” is not only not a sidebar, it becomes the reason for the most prominent (and, I might add, most expensive) food symbol of the entire holiday – the matzah!! Obviously, we are missing something here …
I believe we can answer this perplexing question as follows: If we study the Passover narrative carefully, we will see an amazing thing. The Torah relates that the Jewish people took their unbaked dough with them on the morning of the 15th day of Nissan, and, as they had been instructed beforehand by Moses, they rendezvoused at a place called Rameses. From there they travelled, two million strong, to a place just outside the border of Egypt called Succoth (see Exodus 12:29-42). Rashi, in his commentary to verse 37, writes that the distance between Rameses and Succoth was 120 mil, roughly 62 miles.
Now anyone who has ever been to a matzah bakery knows that dough made from the five grains – wheat, barley, rye, spelt, or oats - is considered to begin the leavening process (rendering it chametz, unfit for Passover use) just eighteen minutes from the time it gets wet. So that when our ancestors took their unbaked dough with them out of Egypt, and, as the Torah tells us, by the time they reached Succoth “it had not fermented”, it could only mean one thing – that the entire nation of at least 2,000,000 Jews had somehow travelled over 60 miles in under 18 minutes – an outright miracle!! (Indeed, when G-d later recounts for the Jewish people at the foot of Mount Sinai all the miracles that He performed for them when He took them out of bondage in Egypt – see Exodus 19:3-4 – He tells them, “I have carried you [out of Egypt] on the wings of eagles”, which the Midrash interprets to mean that their speedy departure from Egypt defied the laws of nature.)
With this we can now understand the great emphasis that the Torah and the Haggadah place on the speed with which our ancestors left Egypt, as well as the prominent role that the matzah plays on Passover. You see, it’s not just that the Jews left Egypt really fast. G-d took our ancestors out of Egypt so fast – they actually transcended time! And this was purposely done to teach the Jewish people – at their very inception as a nation - an important lesson about the freedom they attained on that very first Passover – freedom from the confines of time and the physical world so as to be able to accomplish the impossible.
G-d was showing them (and all of us) that just as they had defied the laws of nature and time in their exodus from Egypt, so, too, would the Jewish people’s collective history and destiny continue to defy all odds, allowing us to survive and thrive and be a light unto the nations despite all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed in our way. And this powerful and “timeless” message was eternalized for the Jewish people through the mitzvah of eating matzah – the ultimate “fast” food – at each and every Passover Seder.
Mark Twain, an agnostic and self-acknowledged skeptic, took notice of the amazing ability the Jewish people have to survive throughout the millennia against all odds, when he penned this in 1899 in Harper's Magazine: "The Egyptian, Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
Paul Johnson, in his major work “A History of the Jews”, has this to say about the amazing moral and spiritual impact the Jewish people have had on all of humanity even with “both our hands tied behind our back”:
“Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
As Rabbi Kalman Packouz and Rabbi Asher Resnick write on www.aish.com: “When we look at Jewish history, we see a history where the Jewish people have defied the laws of nature and the laws of history! We have survived and impacted this world though we have been thrown out of our land not once, but twice! We have impacted the world perhaps more than any other people in history -- the concepts of the value of human life, universal education, justice and equality, the importance of and goal of world peace (as opposed to glorifying war), the importance of a strong stable family as a basis for a moral foundation for society, individual and national responsibility for the world -- though we were beaten, killed and exiled from one nation to the other. Though few in number and spread to the four corners of the earth, we survived as a people, never assimilating into anonymity.”
None of our amazing history seems to make any sense – as they say, who would have thunk it? – yet we somehow managed to accomplish so much with so much riding against us! Such is the power of the Jewish people!
Let us remind ourselves, as we bite into yet another piece of unleavened matzah at the Passover Seder this year, that just like our ancestors made that “impossible” faster-than-time journey when they left Egypt over 3300 years ago - even though it had no rational explanation - so, too, can we indeed accomplish the “impossible” and change the world if we just try our best and let G-d do the rest.
[Sources: The Mahara”l of Prague in Gevuros Hashem Chapter 36]