Let’s talk about what is really important about Passover: the food. No seriously, why is it that the food becomes our central obsession, whether matza balls should float or sink, whether quinoa really can taste like oatmeal if you put enough sugar and raisins in it. Rabbi Elimelech bar-Shaul, the former chief Rabbi of Rehovot wrote a wonderful book Min Ha’be-er that I am studying weekly, and he wrote this about Pesach preparations, and I think it is totally true: “there are those who do not acknowledge the seriousness of the question (which the Talmud asks): “kay-tzad choggin?” how do we celebrate this festival? They make problems where there are none, and complicate the smooth and the simple…and they take away the naturalness and the joy of it…”
Complicate the smooth and the simple: Let’s start with that I totally reject the Ashkenazi rule of kitniyot—not being able to eat rice or legumes– as a ridiculous and unnecessary stricture; a stricture I kept strictly until just a few years ago when I lived in Israel and saw all my modern Orthodox Ashkenazi family and friends eat kitniyot freely, and I became an avid convert to the Sephardic way of thinking about this burdensome medieval custom (which is not a law but only a custom, folks)…if you want to know my halachic reasoning please read my article on this on downtowndvar.wordpress.com...
The real reason I resonate with Rabbi bar-Shaul’s quote is because I think so many of us use the Passover food obsession as a way to avoid thinking about
the grand themes, the big questions of slavery and redemption, the kind of deep thinking that would force us to ask ourselves what are we doing to rid the world of slavery; this question gets overwhelmed and lost under new and ever more complicated food restrictions, and new and ever more complicated ways of trying to imitate chametz food and make Pesach feel no different than any other week.
The food that is really important here, the food that can help us achieve the real meaning of Pesach is not Passover cereal o’s, it is the matza.
I know we all know by now the joke about the blind man and matzah: when handed a piece by his friend, he runs his fingers along it and asks, who wrote this stuff? But for me, matzah is no joke. The simple hardtack that our ancestors baked and carried on their shoulders as provision for the most frightening and awesome journey of their lives; the tasteless, shapeless cracker forbidden to us next Thursday but commanded to us next Friday, this “bread” that we say hamotzi over, this strange bread that except for the 1st night, has no special blessing of its own should really be our test, day in and day out of Passover, of whether we are still aiding and abetting slaveries in our own world, and whether we are working so all can be free.
The eating of matzah should make us remember that Passover is about resistance, struggle and liberation. It is about the past, the present and the future, and every bite of matzah should tell us that.
When we raise the matzah and recite ha lachma anya-- this is the bread of affliction— we begin in Aramaic, the language of the past but we end the passage in Hebrew, the language of the present: hashtah avdei then we were slaves, bashanah haba’ah b’nei chorin next year we will be free. Slaves to what this year? Free from what next year? If we don’t ask that when we raise the matzah, we haven’t told the story.
This bread of exile in the language of Aramaic leave us with the ultimate hope of redemption in Hebrew. Our ultimate freedom from bondage is one where we will be free both individually and also nationally. How blessed are we to live in a generation that can say ba’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim-- next year in Jerusalem— and be able to get on a plane and do it. And how blessed we are to be free, proud and unafraid Canadian Jews. Every bite of matzah should be the taste of that freedom in our mouths.
Amy your family understands this deeply. They left a past, a country and a culture to come to Canada- a land that would guarantee them the freedom to live unafraid, as proud Jews.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote, “The matzah is a contradictory double symbol. On one hand, it is the bread of freedom, the bread our ancestors ate when they left Egypt… On the other hand, it is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in Egypt. How can it be both the bread of freedom and the bread of poverty? The answer is that the meaning lies not in the bread, but in the conditions under which it is eaten. The richest bread eaten when one is enslaved becomes the bread of poverty. The poorest bread eaten under freedom represents redemption.”
In other words, it's not what you are eating, but how you are eating it.
Now some of us will eat the matzah as a joke, ugh how tasteless, I wish I could have a baguette. And some of us will eat the matzah as a burden, oh how I wish this week was over.
Michael Wex wrote a wonderful article in the Globe and Mail this past week about matzah. He writes: “There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matzoh, but taste is what matzoh is not about. Matzoh is the bread of affliction, not the artisanal cracker of unleavened heritage grain and pure spring water. It’s the food of slave-slaves on the run, not wage slaves in repose, and what is important about it is what it is not….People schooled in Jewish law and tradition appreciate matzoh for what it is, an aftertaste of oppression at a feast of deliverance.”
Those of us schooled or getting schooled in Jewish tradition, here in this shul Amy as you have done, will eat the matzah intentionally, with kavannah, and at that point, it won’t matter how it tastes.
Amy I know you come from a family that has intentionality, that treasures the deep questions, that encourages you to live your life and your Judaism with kavannah. I know you have taken your Bat Mitzvah seriously and you take your place as an adult Jew in a community that has gotten to know you and your whole family. Your dad is one of our gabbais and your family has come regularly to “cheer him on” but more than that, it’s obvious that your family sees Judaism as an incredible enrichment to life, and so, your family has the kavannah to continue to inspire you and to inspire our community to be the best shul we can be.
Attitude changes everything, Amy, remember that. In the haggadah, the 4 children and the questions they ask teach us this aspect of attitude, because if you read the 4 children section in Hebrew, you notice that the evil child asks the same question as the wise child:—“What is all this to you?” The wise child says etchem and the evil child says lachem but they both basically ask, why do you do all this stuff? The only difference between the wise child asking what is this to you, and the wicked child asking what is this to you, is the tone. The difference between the bread of affliction and bread of freedom is how you eat it. Remember that matzah can only be made from the 5 grains which are actually chametz. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread.
And so we learn from this simple food the deepest lessons of resistance, struggle and liberation. As Yitz Greenberg has written, “No, the Exodus did not destroy evil in the world. What it did was set up an alternate .. of life. Were it not for the Exodus, humans would have reconciled themselves to the slaveries that exist in the world…” Every bite of matzah should remind us of the task ahead to change the world from one of slaveries of all forms–slaveries to work, to technology, to cheap labour to make cheap clothes, to children picking cocoa beans or coffee beans 14 hours a day, to women being trafficked as sex slaves all over the world…
Our family makes 3 Seder plates— one traditional, one that we call the Exodus Seder plate with melons, leeks, garlic, fish—all the things our ancestors said they missed while they were in the desert—and one modern, with an orange for the disenfranchised, rice for the acknowledgement of Sephardic custom as equal to Ashkenazi, fair-trade chocolate or coffee beans to remind us of the shame of child slavery in most cocoa-growing regions that creates the treat we love so much and eat so blind to how it got to our plate; and in the middle, our cell phones, staring at us and asking us to admit our modern bondage to them. Some of our friends think its cute. We don’t do it to be cute. Every year we think deeply about what should be on this modern plate, what has this year brought us in the world that we should be working to eliminate, what have we done as Jews and as free people to make the plate less full of the symbols of bondage this year?
So friends, on Shabbat Hagadol when I am supposed to be reminding you of all the do’s and don’ts of Passover cooking and eating, of all the rules and regulations of chametz, I remind you instead to experience this coming week as preparation to ask the big questions that Pesach demands of us. In doing that, as Amy reminded us, speak carefully, think deeply, and strive to be in relationship with something bigger than yourself.