As we approach the holiday of Passover, we focus on rituals, such as eating matzot instead of leavened bread and cleaning our homes to rid them of hametz – but we are really commemorating a historical event: the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. Redemption.
It was a unique, revolutionary event and it had a purpose: to create the Jewish people, their acceptance of the covenant – worship of the one God, the basis of a moral life-structure – and taking possession of Eretz Yisrael, designated by God as the homeland of the Jewish people.
We eat matzot not because it is nourishing or tasty but because it binds us to our history, and the destiny of the Jewish people. The name for the holiday, Pesach/Passover refers to the miracle that occurred on the night of Passover, when God sent the Angel of Death to kill the first-born Egyptians. By applying the blood of a lamb to the doorposts of Jewish homes, the Jews were saved. The Paschal lamb was then roasted and eaten with matzot (and bitter herbs) by the entire family as they escaped into the desert. That is how the name for the holiday – a holiday not centered in Eretz Yisrael – came to be.
Liberation from slavery underlies our basic Jewish values: freedom and a life filled with meaning and purpose, the all-encompassing belief in God and our commitment to ethical monotheism. It was announced by God in His first utterance to the Hebrews gathered at Mt Sinai: “I am your God who took you out of Egypt, from slavery.” This was, however, only the beginning. The goal was to create “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” take possession of Eretz Yisrael and create there a Jewish civilization dedicated to the oneness of God, the totality of existence.
Jewish historical consciousness, which we observe in Jewish holidays, therefore, is rooted in Eretz Yisrael. We acknowledge this connection in our daily prayers, reminding us of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. That gives meaning and purpose to our existence as the Jewish people. It helps us to survive hardships and tragedies, the destruction of Jewish civilizations, dispersion, persecution and exile.
Jewish historical consciousness brings us back to our root experiences, beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Egyptian slavery, liberation, the covenant, wandering, taking possession of Eretz Yisrael, building the Temple, monarchy and prophets, and destruction and exile. It’s our history and our identity as the Jewish people. It is what makes us Jews and makes our connection to Eretz Yisrael authentic and real. And it is what motivated the return of the Jewish people to its homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
The purpose of that return was not only to create a place of refuge for Jews; it is also – and more significantly – to build a civilization dedicated to God. That is what makes the Jewish people special and gives us a spiritual and national identity. The modern State of Israel, therefore, is essentially rooted in fulfilling the Zionist vision, “Ingathering of Jews,” creating a just society, and fulfilling the spiritual mission of the Jewish people. We eat matzot not only because of what happened in the past, but as a guide for our future.
Matzah is food for thought; unlike other foods we eat, we ask why we are eating it. And the reason is because it connects us to the most profound and transforming human experiences: liberation from slavery, spiritual redemption, and the ability to worship God. Matzah, therefore, is Jewish soul food. We eat it not because we need it physically, but because it sustains us spiritually. It reminds us that a meaningful life is one that is God-centered, in which we serve the Creator, not ourselves.
Matza is the bread of I and Thou.