Matza and the source of our identity

The taste of that first bite brings with it a deep sense of companionship and trust with all those present around the table.

Making matza in Jerusalem’s Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Making matza in Jerusalem’s Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Seder night has many magical moments. Unquestionably one of the high points for children and adults alike takes place when the matza covering is removed, pieces of two of the three matzot are broken off and, while leaning to the left, matza is eaten.
Some of us may have eaten matzot at various times during the year; many of us have not. Be that as it may, the taste of that first bite brings with it a deep sense of companionship and trust with all those present around the table, which lies at the root of the Seder itself.
Along with that sense of partnering in the quest for a renewal of the spirit comes an abiding connection to all Jews and an almost mystical coalescence of the past, present and future of our people, in this very night, in this very place.
It is fairly common knowledge among us that eating the matza commemorates the haste in which the People of Israel left Egypt. The Haggada itself affirms: “What is the reason we eat matza? Because when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them, there was insufficient time for our ancestors’ dough to become leavened. As it says: ‘The dough, which they brought out of Egypt, they baked into unleavened bread, because they were driven out from Egypt and they were not able to delay, and they had not prepared any provisions.’” (Exodus 12:39) There are a number of difficulties created by that explanation that lead us to a deeper understanding of what the Haggada intends, a perception regarding the eating of the matza that can touch our lives today. Strangely, God commands that matza be eaten with the Paschal Lamb while Israel is still in Egypt, as yet unredeemed: “And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it” (Exodus 12:8). Why eat matza hours before the “hasty” departure? Another riddle: 40 years after the momentous night of our common beginning – almost to the day – the children and grandchildren of those redeemed enter the Land of Israel. They, too, are commanded to eat matza. Now in the hour of the fulfillment of the dream of hundreds of years, they are to eat matza not as a living memory of the redemption from Egypt, but as a powerful symbol of the return to the living land: “And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they kept the Passover [sacrifice] on the 14th day of the month in the evening in the plains of Jericho.
And they did eat of the produce of the land on the morrow after the Passover, unleavened cakes and parched corn, in the selfsame day. And the manna ceased on the morrow, after they had eaten of the produce of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more, but they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year” (Joshua 5:10-12).
Eating bread baked from the produce of the earth rather than subsisting on bread from heaven embodied the sweet blessing of the return to the land of their forefathers after years in the desert. But why should the bread of the land, eaten for the first time, be eaten in the form of matza? THE COMMANDMENT to eat matza in our homes is limited to one evening – or one week – a year. But in the Temple in Jerusalem, the prohibition on leavened bread, hametz, was a permanent fixture.
All flour offerings, with only a very few exceptions, had to be baked as matza.
The reason for this is that bread, in the ancient Middle East, was a symbol of the creative ability of human culture to transform the natural world into human civilization. Both technological prowess and the power of the human spirit to plan and execute for the purpose of life were represented in what was seen as the staff of life: bread made from grains.
Understood in this context, the Temple made a radically different claim: All of life – the blessing of the earth, human creativity, the bread baked for subsistence – came from God, the creator of heaven and earth. The upshot of that claim was that the land belonged to God, and that human creativity, with all of its power and mystery, was a contingent reality.
This required limits, both conscious and internalized as second nature, by heeding God’s command. And so, the bread that was leavened, hametz, symbolizing the creative human act, was prohibited in the Temple in order to protect the representation of the ultimate reality at the source of all life.
Eating matza while still in Egypt along with the Paschal Lamb was an acknowledgment of the faith of the People in what was about to happen to them. The change from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, was a reality still coming; the birth of the aspiration to be at Sinai was still only a potentiality – but the homes of all those who ate the lamb with matza were already temples of God.
By eating matza, they gave expression to the reality that no human creativity could fashion, a reality that miraculously was to envelop them, as the Exodus would be an event of divine redemption changing their collective destiny and reframing the passage of human history.
Moreover, the “haste” in which the redemption from slavery took place was not an isolated event in history, but a sudden glimpse of what is always present but hidden – an opening into the binding commitment to life as a divine blessing.
THE FOUNDATION STONE: But why should the first bread eaten upon entering the land be matza? The matza eaten in haste, hours after the Exodus, marked the birth of a new people, of a new concept of peoplehood. But upon entering into the Land of Israel, upon assuming the radical responsibilities of sovereignty, the burden of economic self-sufficiency – only then does eating matza become a life-saving and life-generating act.
Eating the first bread of the land must then be in the form of matza, because embedded in the privilege and the blessing of self-government is the bane of hubris, the sweetness of using power to exploit – to exploit the weak and the meek, to exploit the earth, to forget the source of all blessing.
So many civilizations have suffered the sin of self-aggrandizement and its self-inflicted punishments, often just as they reached the summit of their power.
But the earth and its blessings and the human creative initiative itself are not the property of those created, not even they who were created in the image of God. Only God makes the bread spring from the earth. That is the critical content of one of our central blessings before eating.
For that reason, it is incumbent on all those who leave the exile, and rejoice at the opportunity to bring life once again to the Land of Israel, to eat matza when returning to the hour that defined our collective identity and fashioned our historic destiny.
The writer is the director of Bet Av – Creativity and Renewal in Torah, the author of five books dealing with issues of Torah and contemporary culture, and a research fellow and teacher at Kolot.