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Parshas Vayikra (5770)

Matzah: The Bread of Affliction?!

If you really want to impress your family and friends (and especially your great-aunt Sophie) with a brilliant, show-stopping “stumper” this year at the Passover Seder, then have I got a question for you!!! This is surely the question to end all questions!!!

The very first passage we recite (sing?) at the beginning of the Maggid section of the Haggadah that we read at the Passover Seder - as the head of the household lifts up the matzah for all to see – is: “Ha Lachma Anya – This is the Bread of Affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt …”

Problem is that at the very end of this section of the Haggadah (just before we begin eating the matzah, bitter herbs, etc.), the head of the household lifts up the matzah again for all to see; only this time we recite: “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…”

Well, which is it, my friends? Is matzah the bread of “affliction” and poverty as we seem to be saying at the beginning of the Seder, or is does it symbolize freedom and redemption as the words we recite at the end of the Passover Seder seem to suggest? Surely it can’t be both … or can it? Discuss. [Asking this straight-forward, thought-provoking question at the beginning of your Passover Seder can be a great way for you to engage everyone sitting there in animated discussion – even your rich cousin Larry who, just two minutes ago, was complaining that this “Seder thing” is so boring, he would rather be having root canal!)

There are many ways to skin a cat (although none of them are legal), and there are many ways to reconcile these two apparently contradictory statements in the Haggadah, but I will offer just one approach – based on the Mahara”l’s commentary, Gevuros Hashem, in Chapters 36, 51 and 60.

We tend to define slavery and freedom in terms of one’s ability to do whatever he wants – if you are forced to work all day long for someone else under miserable conditions, then you are a slave (some would call that a job), but if you can choose where, and if, you want to work, and under what conditions, then you are free.

The truth is, however, that there are many people walking around this planet who might never have worked a day in their lives yet who are totally enslaved. And there are still others who work really hard for peanuts under difficult conditions, yet are truly free.

This is because to be free in the truest sense of the word – and this is exactly what the Passover Seder and the mitzvah of eating matzah is aiming to achieve – it is not sufficient to be physically free from hard work and bondage. So long as a person is beholden to the limitations of his own distorted self-definition, or if he is constantly pre-occupied with what others think about him or want him to think about, he is really a slave.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski likes to tell the following story: One day, a citizen of Chelm was at the public bathhouse. It suddenly dawned upon him that without clothes, most people look alike. He became quite anxious with the thought, “When it comes time to go home, how will I know which one is me?” After pondering this a bit, he came up with a brilliant solution. He found a piece of red string and tied it around his great toe. He was now distinctly identifiable. Unfortunately, as he sudsed and showered, the red string fell off his great toe, and when another bather stepped on it, it stuck to his foot. When it was time to leave, the first bather looked at his foot, and seeing nothing on it, he was perplexed. Then he noticed the other man with the red string on his foot. He approached him and said, “I know who you are, but can you tell me, who am I?”

The point is that if we define ourselves strictly by what we do during the week from 9-5, then what happens if we lose that job? And if we are to define ourselves by our body image, how happy will be truly be – especially when we start to age and Botox and facelifts can only do so much. True freedom comes from the realization that I am greater than the sum of my parts – and that all that I wear, do, look like, are a member of, etc. never defines the real me, because I am essentially a neshamah (spiritual person) with incredible depth and unlimited, inner self-worth.

As well, to be truly free is to not be swayed and moved by every single “ism”, trend or fad that the world out there wants us to buy into. If our political views are molded by CNN, our fashions by Paris and Madison Avenue, and our morals by Hollywood and MTV, then how much are we ourselves actually participating in determining who we are and who we should be? That’s no freedom!

Matzah has two qualities which set it apart from both chametz (leaven) and maror (bitter herbs). First of all, its ingredients are just flour and water with no additives – no yeast to puff it up like a challah, no raisins or streusel to give it a sweet taste, not even egg shmeared on top of it to give it a shine – it is what it is what it is. You see, matzah doesn’t need all that glamour and glitz to give it self-worth – it knows what it is and is not beholden to any external things to define it and give it importance. And to be like matzah and to get your self-worth from inside yourself is to be truly free.

Secondly, matzah has no sharp taste to it. In fact, it has hardly any taste at all. Maror, on the other hand, has a very sharp taste. So that when you eat that horseradish at the Seder table on Passover - whether you like it or not, you simply can’t help being “moved” and affected by its sharpness. And someone who is moved and changed by every new trend or outlook, bitter or otherwise, that comes along, is very much a slave. Only someone with matzah-like qualities – he doesn’t get easily influenced but thinks for himself with proper judgment despite all the peer-pressure from what “everyone else” is thinking – is truly free, just like one who eats that tasteless matzah is not “moved” by it against his will in any way.

So we see how matzah can indeed be the “Bread of Affliction” and poverty – i.e. it has nothing to it, no additives and no taste, no glitz and no glamour – and, at the same time, be very much the “Bread of Freedom” from slavery. There is really no contradiction at all.

I hope you and your family will enjoy this (kosher for Passover) food for thought at the Seder this year!

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