'The recipe of freedom’

The Torah communicates unequivocally God’s desire that we be neither slaves nor slaveholders.

By CHARLES SAVENOR
March 28, 2018 22:10
Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. This colorfully illustrated French and Hebrew Haggadah was publ

Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. This colorfully illustrated French and Hebrew Haggadah was published in Vienna. Caption on image: Eating Matzah. . (photo credit: US NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)

If you ask people about their favorite memories connected with Judaism, we usually find that meaningful Jewish memories are associated with food in one way or another. Julia Child captured this thought when she said: “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”

Judaism uses food not only to strengthen the bonds between people, but also to serve as a teaching tool.

This is especially true during Passover, when we use food to internalize the eternal messages of the Exodus.

During our feast of freedom, matzah is the main course in our collective lesson about the Jews’ flight from bondage thousands of years ago. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writes: “Matzah has dual symbolism,” for it reminds us of the meager rations our ancestors ate in servitude, as well as the limited provisions they could collect during their journey to freedom.

While the Bible stresses the hurried process of leaving their shackles behind, there actually might be more to the story. Looking closely at the text, we find that certain nuances of the biblical narrative do not align seamlessly with our understanding of and implementation of the rituals.

Moreover, there is an essential ingredient of ancient Egyptian history that is ignored in the character of this notable cracker.

The well-known Exodus story pulsates with anxiety. The Torah is clear that the Almighty’s mission is not just about freeing the Jews, but also delivering “punishments to all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12), which includes the Nile and Pharaoh himself.

The dagger in the heart of Egypt is the mass slaughter of lambs, which their society considers sacred. What would later become the paschal sacrifice is prescribed to be carried out quickly while the Israelites await the sign to pack their bags and go. It seems that despite the Israelites’ eagerness to leave, they do not pack because they understand that Pharaoh’s heart could change at any moment.

There exists a direct link between the commandments of the paschal lamb and matzah. First, the Torah tells us that these two items are supposed be eaten together, along with bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). Second, similar language about a time crunch is used for both.

If we focus solely on the biblical record of the actions associated with and the time required for slaughtering these lambs, a question emerges. Since the Israelites have time to slaughter the lambs, pack their belongings, and collect valuables from their Egyptian neighbors, why do they not have time to let their dough rise and bake bread? The fact that the slaughter of the paschal lamb uses similar language and is linked with matzah on so many levels helps us understand the time crunch associated with the leavening of the Israelite’s bread. I argue that the Israelites actively decide to forgo the leavening, rather than passively letting time get away from them.

We can imagine that time is a vital factor when freedom beckons, yet it appears they had time for a variety of other tasks. Perhaps the Torah’s lesson is about prioritization rather than time management. Just as killing the lambs is a public act of defiance against their taskmasters, so too is leaving the yeast out. Both transmit a powerful message to the world they would leave behind.

Another name for matzah is “the bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). The Hebrew word for affliction, “oni,” is directly related to the biblical imperative to “afflict our souls” on Yom Kippur. On this most sacred day we abstain from certain behaviors – eating, bathing, etc. – to experience the true nature of the day. Matzah’s additional moniker serves as another clue about the motivation of this commandment. Perhaps “the bread of affliction” is not a description of slaves’ rations or our ancestors’ experience in servitude, but rather a self-imposed response to it.

While our faith remembers Egypt as a brutal and cruel place, the land of Pharaohs is also considered to be a cradle of innovation. Ancient Egypt is known just as much for its massive buildings as for one element of its cuisine, namely yeast. Extra-biblical sources confirm that yeast is first developed there and utilized in the preparation of bread and even beer.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Had anyone suggested at the time that it would not be the Egypt of the pharaohs that would survive and change the moral landscape of the world, but instead a group of Hebrew slaves, it would have seemed an absurdity.”

Yet, while our ancestors may have marveled with rest of the ancient world at the accomplishments of Pharaoh’s Egypt, they understand firsthand that this society’s infrastructure was built upon injustice, bias and subjugation.

The Torah communicates unequivocally God’s desire that we be neither slaves nor slaveholders. As we know from the slaughter of the paschal lambs, the Jews did not just leave the land of their enslavement, they defiantly divorced themselves from it.

With this in mind, we may consider that the unleavened bread of Passover is not just due to a hasty exit, but also an intentional decision to leave it out.

What better way to depart on their journey than to deliberately boycott the signature ingredient of their taskmasters? By leaving out this one key ingredient, our ancestors ritually express their moral outrage. Their action remind us of the words of Thomas Jefferson: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” Seeing firsthand that power and position can blind us to suffering, Moses and the Israelites reject their masters’ gods and goods, their religion and their culture.

What reinforces this idea of yeast being purposely excluded from the Israelites’ bread is the fact that yeast, leavened bread, was not allowed on the altar in the Tabernacle and Temple.

The Torah teaches us: “No grain offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven” (Leviticus 2:11). Again, the main course of Egyptian society was taboo on the table in God’s spiritual home.

In its role as the bread of resistance, this famous flat bread is transformed from an edible description of a past trauma to a palatable prescription for a just society. This additional interpretation of matzah’s character and constitution has the power to transform how we view the Exodus and the vision of our ancestors. Rushing out of Egypt, the Israelites enact an annual yeast boycott that would forever remind them of their painful servitude, and, equally important, our ongoing role in baking liberty, justice and equality into the society we seek to create.

The author, a rabbi, serves as director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.


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