Hametz and matzah. Leaven, and unleavened. The bread of ordinary life, and the flat cracker which represents our dash to freedom. The two words, in Hebrew, have similar letters: המץ, מצה. The only letter which differs is the initial letter of hametz (a chet, ח) and the final letter of matzah (a heh, ה). They look almost identical, except that where one has a tiny opening, the other is all the way closed. Just so, our sages tell us, hametz and matzah are almost the same: made from the same ingredients, but with matzah-consciousness comes the awareness of our liberation. (For more on this, I highly recommend Reb Jeff's post Matzah and Chameitz.)
Slavery remains real, even in today's enlightened world. Sometimes it goes by other names: indentured servitude, the grueling life of a migrant worker, factory employees who are oppressed and mistreated. Poverty, too, can feel like a kind of slavery. Some of you who are reading this have to choose between medicine and rent, between a new pair of shoes for your kid and keeping the heat on. Others struggle with the mitzrayim, the "narrow place," of mental illness, of PTSD, of having survived rape and abuse (did you know that April is sexual assault awareness month?), of watching a beloved child struggle with illness which won't go away.
In light of all of these forms of suffering, there's something painfully glib about the assurances I want to offer about Pesach. Each year I offer the traditional teaching that each of us is commanded to experience the story as though we ourselves had been liberated from the Narrow Place: not our ancestors, but we ourselves. This festival comes to tell us that we can experience liberation in our own lives! Liberation from sorrow, liberation from despair, liberation from our constrained and broken spirits, liberation from whatever constrictions have been part of our story. What a glorious promise.
And yet. There will be people who feel -- there will be times when each of us will feel -- that mitzrayim is ongoing, that we cannot break free. That God doesn't lift people out of anywhere with a mighty hand or an outstretched arm anymore.
To those caught in a constriction which will not let go, I offer this prayer: that this Pesach may offer you an expansive breath through that tiny open space which turns hametz into matzah. A glimpse of freedom, a foretaste of the world to come. May it give you the space you need in order to cry out, as tradition tells us the Israelites cried out in our agony. May you find meaning in the story, the prayers and the songs, the familiar tastes, even though your liberation is not yet complete. And may those of us who do not (currently) feel bound remember you at our seder tables, and offer you every kindness we can.