We are fast approaching the end of the days of wine and matza.
Matza, clearly, is the icon of Passover, so much so that while the holiday has several names – Chag Ha’aviv, the holiday of Spring; Z’man Cheretenu, the Season of our Liberation; and, of course, Passover – its official name is Chag Hamatzot, the holiday of unleavened bread.
But, why is matza so central? After all, it is just one element of a much bigger story, one that encompassed more than two centuries of slavery and emancipation. Why couldn’t we have called this whole period the Holiday of the Exodus, or perhaps, Chag Hageula, the Festival of Redemption?
The rabbis offer numerous reasons why matza is so unique and pervasive. For starters, it has a dual-symbolism: on the one hand, it is the meager poor bread the enslaved Israelites hurriedly ate; yet, on the other hand, it is a sign of freedom and faith, as we rushed the baking in order to leave Egypt as soon as possible and loyally follow God and Moses into the wilderness. Indeed, we are instructed that while eating the matza we are to lean in the manner of royalty and indicative of our new-found freedom.
The speed with which we bake matzot – the process must be completed within 18 minutes – also indicates the sense of energy and enthusiasm that should accompany our performance of all the mitzvot (commandments). (Note, matzot and mitzvot share the same Hebrew letters!)
Matza also requires a discipline, a control over our wants and needs expressed, in this case, by refraining from our natural desire to bake full and fluffy, delicious bread. Yes, we would like to eat whatever appeals to us, but we first must pause to ask if it meets the dictates of the Torah, and then we must bless God before partaking. In this sense, the protracted baking of the matza represents a major component of Halacha (Jewish law) – the ability to control our physical desires and to hold back our impulses in order to act or react in consonance with God’s law.
Yet, while I accept that matza is truly special and emblematic, I’m still puzzled: Why do we need an entire week of matza-oriented behavior? Why must we turn our house inside-out, changing dishes, creating new recipes, kashering our pots and pans and silverware? Why didn’t God simply decree one day in the year to commemorate the Exodus and command us to eat matza on that day? Why a full seven days of observance?
In Jewish fashion, let’s address that question with another question. Moses is the ultimate reluctant hero. When he is asked – or told – that he will be the one to lead the Jews out of bondage, he desperately tries to avoid taking the job. He argues that, as a fugitive who killed an Egyptian taskmaster, he is not welcome back in Egypt; that he is a poor orator, with a speech impediment, and that he cannot hope to convince the Israelites of the possibility of escape from their predicament, now more than a century old.
To reassure Moses, God presents him with three pocket miracles: Moses could turn his staff into a snake and turn it back again, he could cause his hand to become leprous and return it to health, and he could turn water into blood. All these things have a common denominator: change. That which is inanimate can come alive, that which is sickly can be restored to fullness, that which is dormant can become dynamic.
Moses’ initial and perhaps most important task is to convince the Israelites that they, too, can change. They are a nation of kings and queens, destined for glory, despite their current malaise; they don’t have to slavishly accept their dismal fate or be tolerant of the oppression and indignation they suffer daily. But first, they must somehow overcome a syndrome that I call, “I’ve grown accustomed to your mace,” whereby they shrug their shoulders in resignation and dismiss all hope of the future.
They can change – they must change, if they are going to fulfill their mission as the Am Segula, the treasured nation that represents God’s presence in the world. “Today,” says Moses, “you are at the lowest rung of society; but tomorrow, you will rise to greatness. Today, you are powerless and purposeless; but tomorrow you will command the respect of all nations.”
Passover is the holiday of change. But this cannot be accomplished in an instant, even in one day. It takes time and determination, patience and practice.
That is why Passover, and matza, are not confined to just one day. We take an entire week out of our year to transform ourselves, our family and our houses to vary our routine in a thorough, comprehensive way and to graphically demonstrate that people can change, no matter how stuck they think they are in thier ways.
We are a great nation, with unlimited potential. But, we are also in need of betterment, improvement and change; we have no shortage of wrongs that need righting.
We have to end the conditions of poverty that afflict too many in our country. We have to be brutally, uncompromisingly tough on terrorism, with zero tolerance for those who threaten our families and our way of life. We have to drastically improve our social discourse and behavior; the shaming we see in our schools and the disrespect toward our elected leaders past and present – from Begin to Rabin to Bennett – is despicable. It only serves to encourage our young people to choose violence, in words and action, rather than seek compromise and conciliation.
The seventh day of Passover commemorates the parting of the Red Sea, arguably the most well-known miracle in history. But this event, too, is about change. At this historic moment, everything changes. In an instant, we are catapulted from the depths of despair and desperation – as Pharaoh’s army threatens to eliminate us – to the highest heights of glory, as we witness Egypt’s might and strength sink beneath the waters, never to rise again.
Jewish life is symbolized by the moon, rather than the sun. The moon is constantly changing; it is never in the same place two nights in a row. We, too, have that awesome ability to change; to change ourselves, and thereby effect change in others.
And that may just be the greatest miracle of all.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]