The Torah reading for the first day of Pesach, which falls on Shabbat this year, comes from chapters 12 and 13 of the Book of Exodus, and discusses one of the most well-known topics of the holiday — matzah. We find the multiple commandments to both refrain from all chametz (leavened foods) and to eat matzah, in verses 15-20 of chapter 12. Then, we hear the familiar "historical" reason why the Israelites "baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt . . . since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves" (Exodus 12:39).
This simple hardtack that our ancestors baked and carried on their shoulders as provision for the most frightening and awesome journey of their lives should taste like power in our mouths. This tasteless, shapeless cracker, reviled by Atkins and South Beach diets, should feel like a delicious treat. Forbidden to us (by some authorities1) on the day before Passover, but commanded to us on the day it begins, it plugs us up physically but should release us spiritually.
Matzah exists, like us, in the realm of paradox. Let me suggest three contrasts through which we can see this exacting commandment of matzah, and the complex food that is so central to our celebration.
First, the eating of matzah forces us to live in two worlds at the same time: the cozy Jewish kitchen of our matzah balls and kugels, and the outside secular world of the "crackers" we take to lunch at our workplaces and schools — those "sandwiches" that set us apart. We are known as we were once known in Egypt — somewhat strange in a strange land, exotic and interesting, and oh-so-just-a-little different. We go into our children's schools to explain ourselves. We answer the many questions of history, tradition, and ritual at the proverbial watercooler: why almonds are fine, but not peanuts; why green beans are a maybe, and hummus is a no for me but a yes for my neighbors. It's a secret craziness we can only explain to each other in whispers in the kosher-for-Passover aisles. And yet, we translate it all week long for friends and colleagues.
Second, matzah forces us to live in the present and the past at the same time. It beckons us back home to a world of our fathers and mothers with their time-honored recipes, their matzah brei that no one else can make quite the same way, the seders they made when we were kids. We feel a deep sadness of missing them so badly when they are gone from our own grown-up seder tables or when they are there but frail, ill, easily tired, forgetful — "that tune, Dad, we've sung it a million times; that recipe Mom, don't you remember it?" We grow nostalgic for the time before ready-made Passover cereals. And yet, we get grounded in the present tense. We try new versions of charoset from around the world — from Sephardic traditions and Central America and the Caribbean — and we make them our own. We take the responsibility to teach our children what we know, and to admit what we don't; we download one more resource from the Internet before the seder, we modernize and give new meaning to those rituals lest they become as stale as last year's matzah.
Third, matzah is the "bread of affliction" and at the same time, the "bread of freedom." On the one hand, the matzah our ancestors ate when they left Egypt was literally their first taste of freedom. On the other hand, the Haggadah reminds us it is the "the bread of poverty." How can it be both? The meaning lies not in the bread, but in the conditions under which it is eaten. Even the richest bread eaten when one is enslaved becomes the bread of poverty. But the poorest bread eaten under freedom represents redemption. The matzah tells us: bless what you eat but never forget that once, you were hungry. The contradiction between the bread of freedom and the bread of affliction is solved by our attitude.
And it is softened by time. Think about it: the only difference between chametz and matzah is time. Eighteen minutes of baking is all that is allowed to make matzah. Eighteen minutes is all that stands between kosher and not, between leavened and unleavened. The ingredients are exactly the same: flour and water. Only time stands between them.
The theme of time resonates at the beginning of Exodus 12, with the commandment to mark "the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Exodus 12:2). Before this commandment, given while we are still in Egypt, we have universal mitzvot, but this is the first "national" mitzvah that will define us as a people. We are to take control of our time. A slave doesn't need a calendar, living always according to the master's timetable. Only a free person can determine his or her own schedule, and only a free nation can determine its own calendar. A nation of slaves cannot imagine Shabbat, or Passover.
Think of all that when you schmear your gluten-free, onion-and-garlic matzah with kosher-for-Passover pesto, and enjoy what Miriam and Moses did — and didn't.
1. See Orach Chayim 471:1
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).