Rabbi Dennis Ross on Progressive Faith
Pre-Passover roundup

Passover, matzah, dialectics.

In shul this morning we read and discussed an excerpt from Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg's book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. We read from the chapter on Passover -- specifically, a few paragraphs on the multiple meanings of matzah:

Just as shunning hametz [leaven] is the symbolic statement of leaving slavery behind, so is eating matzah the classic expression of entering freedom. Matzah was the food the Israelites took with them on the Exodus. "They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes [matzot], for it was not leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared provisions for themselves." (Exodus, 12:39.) According to this passage, matzah is the hard bread that Jews initially ate in the desert because they plunged into liberty without delaying.

However, matzah carries a more complex message than "Freedom now!" Made only of flour and water -- with no shortening, yeast, or enriching ingredients -- matzah recreates the "hard bread of affliction" (Deut. 16:3) and meager food given to the Hebrews in Egypt by their exploitative masters. Like the bitter herbs eaten at the seder, it represents the degredation and suffering of the Israelites.

These two messages about matzah -- that it is the bread of freedom, representing our rush into new life, and that it is "the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Mitzrayim" -- are in every Passover haggaadah. Matzah has two symbolic meanings. It represents our liberation, and it represents what we are liberated from.

Matzah is, therefore, both the bread of freedom and the erstwhile bread of slavery. It is not unusual for ex-slaves to invert the very symbols of slavery to express their rejection of the masters' values. But there is a deeper meaning in the double-edged symbolism of mtazah. It would have been easy to set up a stark dichotomy: matzah is the bread of the Exodus way, the bread of freedom; hametz is the bread eaten in the house of bondage, in Egypt. Or vice versa: matzah is the hard ration, slave food; hametz is the rich, soft food to which free people treat themselves. That either/or would be too simplistic. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread.

I love Rabbi Greenberg's point that the binary of either/or is too simplistic. Passover is a holiday that shatters binarisms, pushes us beyond the black-and-white oppositions of slavery and freedom. Neither condition is as simple as a binary system suggests. Both slavery and freedom can manifest in a visible outer way, and an invisible inner way, and the inner and outer need not match. And the most important form of freedom is on the inside, in the psyche.

The halakha [Jewish law] underscores the identity of hametz and matzah with the legal requirement that matzah can be made only out of grains that can become hametz -- that is, those grains that ferment if mixed with water and allowed to stand. How the human prepares the dough is what decides whether it becomes hametz or matzah. How you view the matzah is what decides whether it is the bread of liberty or servitude.

Matzah and hametz consist of the same ingredients. Matzah is made of flour and water; hametz is made of flour and water. The difference is first internal; making matzah is a conscious choice. "Okay," one says to oneself, "this is going to be matzah; I have only eighteen minutes to make it; go!" That act of mindfulness, of kavvanah (conscious intent), is the first thing that matters in turning potential-hametz into actual-matzah. The other thing that matters is the action that arises out of that intention.

In this, I think, making matzah is not unlike making Shabbat. Shabbat is not inherently holier than the other days of the week -- not until we become mindful of it, and with our thoughts and our actions we make it so.

I'm fond of the metaphor which holds that, as we clean our houses of hametz before Passover, we can take the opportunity also for spiritual housecleaning, ridding ourselves of hametz -- that ego which puffs us up -- in the process. Here, too, the notion that hametz and matzah contain the same ingredients has something to teach me. The part of me which is appropriate for the festival of freedom, and the part of me I want to sweep away and burn, are made of the same stuff -- me. What I want to rid myself of is not a foreign object. It's made of the same flour and water, the same Rachel-ness, as the parts of me I want to keep.

The point is subtle but essential. To be fully realized, an Exodus must include an inner voyage, not just a march on the road out of Egypt. The difference between slavery and freedom is not that slaves endure hard conditions while free people enjoy ease. The bread remained equally hard in both states, but the psychology of the Israelites shifted totally. When the hard crust was given to them by tyrannical masters, the matzah they ate in passivity was the bread of slavery. But when the Jews willingly went from green fertile deltas into the desert because they were determined to be free, when they refused to delay freedom and opted to eat unleavened bread rather than wait for it to rise, the hard crust became the bread of freedom.

The Passover journey isn't just a historical journey; it's one we take every year of our lives. And it isn't just an external journey; in order to have true meaning, it needs to change us on the inside, where freedom really matters. The difference between slavery and freedom, between constriction and expansion, is our state of mind. Eaten grudgingly in a state of oppression, matzah is the bread of affliction; eaten joyfully in a state of liberation, matzah is the bread of our freedom.

There is a connection, our rabbi taught today, between Purim and Pesach, the last holiday of the Jewish year and the first holiday of the Jewish year. Both holidays celebrate stories of how we were oppressed, and almost wiped out, but we survived and even flourished. In the Purim story, told in the Megillah of Esther, God's name is never mentioned. In the Passover story, told in the traditional haggadah, Moses' name is never mentioned. There's something to be learned from this apparent disjunction.

Purim teaches us that redemption happens when people take their destinies into their own hands, and transform themselves. Passover teaches us that redemption happens when people trust completely in God, and allow themselves and their circumstances to be transformed. These narratives are mirror images of each other, but both are true -- and the real truth of redemption lies in the dialectical tension between the human-focused Purim story and the God-focused Passover one.

Just like the real truth of matzah lies in the dialectical tension between the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom, and how we continue to be transformed by spending a week in the synthesis between them.

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