This week in the Torah we hear of matzah, but we don’t hear everything about matzah. During the Seder we ask why we eat matzah, but most of us cannot fully answer the question.
There are (at least) three different reasons for eating unleavened bread; and together with a fourth, symbolic reason, all of them tie together in one of those mystical weaves in which the Torah is so rich.
Chapter 12 of Exodus tells us that matzah represents the speed with which the Israelites were forced to leave Egypt: “And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay” (Ex. 12:39). Here is the first reason – it represents haste.
Later in the Torah, however, two words give an additional meaning to the matzah. In Deuteronomy 16:3, we read: “For seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of affliction (lehem oni), for you departed in haste from Egypt.” The root of oni (ayin-nun-heh) can also connote starvation, as we see earlier in Deut. 8:3.
Matzah also represents a reminder of what the Israelites ate when they were subject to the Egyptians. As we read in the “Ha Lahma Anya” section of the Haggadah, “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in Egypt.” Matzah was the staple of the slave.
Here are two, contradictory messages: matzah represents the imminent freedom of the Israelites and the haste with which they had to grab that freedom, and it represents the years of slavery and oppression, a reminder of the scant food they survived on in Egypt.
The third meaning embraces both. In the Talmud (Pesahim 115b) Samuel says that oni means answer – it is the bread with which one answers. Matzah provokes and provides the response to the questions of Passover.
The Gemara goes on to suggest that oni means not only affliction but also poverty – the kind of bread a poor person might be forced to eat, which returns us to the idea that it was the bread of slaves.
We see multiple meanings in the matzah, yet they are all woven together. In breaking off the afikomen, we are symbolically suggesting that both sides, freedom and slavery, are represented in the matzah. One half accompanies us through the meal, and the other provides the triumphant conclusion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up with his “earliest and best teacher” – his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. Many of her sayings and teachings shaped her young nephew. Emerson tells the story that once, when told to “hurry up,” his aunt responded, “Hurry is for slaves.”
That single sentence – hurry is for slaves – encapsulates the multiple meanings of matzah. When you have no control of your own time, you are a slave. When you cannot pause to appreciate what surrounds you, you are a slave – whether an actual slave or a slave to your own compulsions. When at the Passover meal we recline, we take our time; we are proving that unlike slaves, we are free.
This is part of the deep wisdom of the matzah for our world. We know that the Rabbis teach us that matzah represents humility, and bread ego – a “puffed up” sense of self. But just as matzah represents both slavery and freedom, we can understand that in our day it represents both humility and self-importance. For when we rush about, isn’t it often because we think the world can’t do without our efforts, our presence, our voice? When we say “I’m so busy” we are matzah – enslaved by our own speed and thinking well of our own engagements.
Passover comes once a year, but its lessons are always relevant. The difference between matzah and leaven is just an instant, a few more seconds of baking. Sometimes the most powerful lessons about slavery, freedom, ego and humility are not large decisions but the commitments of a moment. When we take time, when we remember our blessings, when we recall how small is the difference between service to ego and service to God, we are in the land of matzah.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David: the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.