30/30 poem 1: from start to finish
Another morning-blessings poem

Returning to leaven

Breads and doughs. Photos taken over the years.

We don't cleanse our house of hametz (leaven) as thoroughly as many of my friends do. (I wrote a poem about that last year -- Bedikat chametz in the toddler house.) Still, after a week of dining on matzah brei (matzah, soaked in hot water and wrung out, then scrambled with eggs and milk and salt and pepper) and matzah spread with cream cheese, that first leavened meal after Pesach is always a treat. As much as I love the first tastes of matzah at the seder, the familiar scents and textures of haroset and horseradish and matzah's crunch, I also love that first sandwich once I'm back in the land of the leaven-eating again.

Hametz and matzah are made of the same ingredients: flour and water. (I've written about this before -- hametz and matzah, 2006.) What makes matzah matzah is that it is baked speedily, so that the natural yeasts which abound don't have time to begin to ferment and inflate the dough. The two words have almost the same letters in Hebrew. Hametz is spelled חמץ, matzah is spelled מצה -- the only difference is between the ח and the ה, in that little open space in the letter ה. Hametz is spacious because the bread is risen; matzah is flat, so its spaciousness is spiritual rather than physical. Or, maybe the space in that ה is what lets God in...

The challenge, for me, is holding on to the spiritual spaciousness of Pesach once I'm no longer experiencing the reminder of matzah at every meal. That's one of the reasons I so love counting the Omer: it gives me a way to hold on to the sweetness, and the spiritual spaciousness, of Pesach long after the festival is past. For seven weeks, I have a built-in practice to help keep me mindful: of the passing of time, of the journey from freedom to revelation, of the lessons of Pesach which I want to carry with me into the year to come. Freedom all by itself is -- not meaningless, to be sure, but only a first step. The next step is getting ready to enter into covenant, into relationship.

Imagine what it might have been like for our ancestors, wandering during this time. They'd left the harsh labor of Pharaoh's brick-making camps, left a world in which a ruler could decree that all Hebrew boy-children be slaughtered at birth. They'd crossed the Sea of Reeds, walking miraculously on dry sand, maybe with walls of gleaming water suspended impossibly on each side. Signs and wonders, miracles like no one had ever imagined! And now they were camping in the desert, free and probably frightened. So they were free of Pharaoh: now what? To whom would they declare their allegiance? Whom would they serve?

The Jewish answer, of course, is God. Everybody serves someone or something. We choose to be avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High.

Did we ever truly wander in the wilderness? Who knows. I can't say that I care much, one way or the other. What I love is that this is the story we tell about ourselves. We left the dehumanizing servitude of a tyrant, and instead of finding another earthly power to yoke ourselves to, entered into relationship with the source of compassion and blessing in the world. That's what we serve: not Pharaoh, not a boss, but the One Who asks us to partner in the work of healing the brokenness in creation.

In the hamotzi blessing, we bless God Who brings forth bread from the earth. Of course, God doesn't bring forth bread, per se; what God brings forth from the earth is grain. We have to do our part: milling the grain into flour, mixing and kneading the flour into dough, letting the dough rise, shaping and baking it. In Genesis 3 this is framed as a response to the first humans' choice to pursue knowledge -- now we'll earn bread with the sweat of our brows, working to till the earth and tend it and to turn the grain into something we can consume. But that shift is also a kind of growing-up. In the Eden story, we were like children, and everything was provided for us. Post-Eden, we're more mature beings, and we're able to do some of the work to feed ourselves -- and to experience the satisfaction of making bread with our own hands.

It's a new kind of partnership. Just as we partner with God in making the world a better place, we also partner with God in turning the raw materials of our world into something sophisticated and new. God is still the One Who brings forth the grain from the earth, Who causes blessings to flow into creation, Who caused the grains to evolve in all of their beautiful and diverse forms. And we're the ones who get to turn those grains into a wealth of beautiful and diverse breads...which, after Pesach (whenever that is for you, depending on whether you celebrate for seven days or for eight), we once again get to eat.