Meaning of matzah: As Passover comes to a close, a look at its message

Rabbi Jason Fenster

By Rabbi Jason Fenster, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Eighth day of Passover

By the time you read this, you have probably tried everything. You started by covering it with tomato sauce and cheese. A few days in, you added some toppings to spice things up. Maybe you stacked it and made some lasagna. Maybe you bought some that was coated in chocolate, perhaps with a dash of caramel. You made sandwiches, and you scooped dips with it like a tortilla chip. You schmeared anything schmearable onto it: cream cheese, jam, butter, hazelnut spread, guacamole…

Of course, you know that it is just flour and water, which spend no more than 18 minutes together before completion. It is flat and brittle, and, unless you sprung for this year’s hot new matzah flavor, it’s rather bland. On Day Five, you googled the history of matzah and learned that in the time of the rabbis, when Hillel made his infamous sandwich, it was not the square, holey cracker we eat today; it was more like a soft flatbread, malleable enough to make a proper sandwich with horseradish. In fact, many Sephardi communities still make their matzah this way.

And now, after a week of doing anything to make your matzah something more than matzah, you are staring at another two boxes wondering: “what is this stuff anyway?”

The Torah reading for the eighth day of the Passover welcomes us into this conversation through a consideration of the holiday calendar and the nature of matzah itself.

Chapter 16 of Deuteronomy begins with an explanation of the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Sifrei Devarim, a third Century midrashic compilation, notes that this is the third time the Torah enumerates these festivals. The first, the midrash teaches, is in Leviticus Ch. 23 in order to present them in order; the second comes in Numbers Ch. 28-29, to explain the requisite sacrifices; the third is in our reading, Deuteronomy Ch. 16. The festivals here are mipnei hatzibur—for the benefit of the public.  

Tradition reads “for the benefit of the public” to indicate that this listing is intended to be a communal exhortation, cautioning the people about the obligations and biblical strictures of the various festivals. But, when we look carefully at these three instances, another important detail emerges. When Deuteronomy explains the pilgrimage festivals, it reminds us to observe the ritual with male and female slave, with the Levite, with the stranger, with the fatherless, and with the widow; when you observe the most sacred moments in the ritual calendar, be sure to include the most vulnerable in your community. Why is the Deuteronomic listing mipnei hatzibur, for the sake of the community? Because G-d demands that everyone in the community, particularly those who might otherwise be excluded, is explicitly welcomed to the holiday table.

As we investigate further, we notice another distinction. In our portion, when Shavuot and Sukkot are mentioned, the Torah opens with “You shall rejoice in your festival…” (Deuteronomy 16:11 and 16:14). For these two festivals, we are commanded to rejoice; not so for Passover. Passover, it seems, is unique. It has some purpose beyond the biblical obligation for joy. What, then, is Passover for?

Matzah is the key.

G-d, here, calls matzah lechem oni—the bread of distress (Deuteronomy 16:3). Bread that we ate as we hurriedly escaped Egypt, and we eat it now as to remember that departure. Just a few days ago, we lifted our matzah around the seder table and made a similar declaration. We did not say: “This is the bread of Jewish affliction.” We do not say, “This bread is for one people, to represent one nation’s story.” We do not say, “This bread is only concerned with the narrow yet palpable slice of Jewish suffering that exists in the world.”

Instead, we lifted it and said, “Ha lachma anya.” An Aramaic derivation of lechem oni from Deuteronomy. We said, ‘This is the bread of affliction.” This is bread of universal affliction. This is bread that demands that we recognize the existence of suffering beyond ourselves.

What is matzah? Matzah is empathy bread. It is bread that makes us say: this moment is not just about me. It is about all of us. It is about the reality that slavery, mistreatment, prejudice, persecution, and degradation still exist.

When we raise our matzah to make that declaration, when we recognize the communal exhortation to empathy. After we say “this is the bread of affliction,” we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Come in! Eat! We have enough brisket for an army regimen. Enter my home. Enter my community. Share the story of your journey with me, and I will share my story of redemption with you. Let us hear each other and see ourselves in each other’s stories. Let me recognize that I am privileged enough to have this empathy bread, and let me share it with you so that you too might be sated, so that you too might be heard.

Passover is mipnei hatzibur, for the benefit of the community, because, at its best, it brings us to the community and brings the community to us. We swing open the door to welcome in the stranger, the fatherless, the widow, and share a meal and break empathy bread together. Matzah makes this festival distinct because it demands that in addition to our joy in this season of freedom, that we open our doors and wonder how we might be G-d’s partners in liberation

As we enjoy our last few nibbles of our empathy bread this Passover season, may we merit the opportunity to herald a time of joy, redemption, and freedom.

Rabbi Jason Fenster is rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim.

2 Comments on "Meaning of matzah: As Passover comes to a close, a look at its message"

  1. Great teaching! I am going to save this for next year’s seder.

  2. Beautifully expressed. The best explanation I have read!

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