Monday, April 10, 2006

Pesah Reflections

A Meditation on Matzah

Matzah is described by the Torah as lehem oni. The Talmud offers two interpretations for this term: one, the literal sense, “bread of poverty”; the other, based on word play, reads it as if it meant “answering bread” or “bread upon which many things are said.”

Lehem oni: Matzah is a poor man’s bread. It is the quintessence of simplicity: simple flour and water, baked quickly, before it can rise. Without yeast, so that it does not puff up and expand. Lowly, humble, like a poor person used to others lording it over him. It may not be kneaded with any rich additives: wine, oil, honey, eggs, milk or fruit juice. If it is, all agree that it may not be used for the “matzah of mitzvah” eaten at the Passover Seder; others (thus the Ashkenazim) add rule that may not be eaten at all during Passover.

The Maharal of Prague speaks of the simplicity of matzah as emblematic of the meaning of the holiday: of returning to the fundaments of our lives. Like the truth itself, it is unadorned and simple. Without the trappings of civilization, of elegance, of luxury brought about through the accident of success. There is something primal, immediate in its taste, something that brings us back to other times and places, to other levels of existence. That challenges the pursuit of material things, of possessions, of opulence, of money as the source of success and happiness in life.

Lehem oni. The Haggadah opens with words sometimes translated as “This is the bread of affliction.” The Jews are a peculiar people. What other nation traces it origins back to slavery, and still, three and a half thousand years later, celebrates its liberation from that miserable state as the basis of its existence? According to the Mishnah, each and every one of us is commanded to see himself and to show himself, as if he himself has just come out of Egypt. What does it mean to know that we were once slaves?! First of all, it means knowing how to empathize with the lowest of the low. To know that even the poorest, uneducated people, those who do the most menial and demeaning work, are in some sense ourselves. To literally see every other human being, no matter how great or small, at “eye-level.” Not merely to give him “charity” with noblesse oblige of the patrician, but to know that he is literally like ourselves.

Jews have a history of being “liberals,” of being in the forefront of movements for social justice; sociologists comment, at times with astonishment, that Jews are almost unique in not voting according to their economic interest. (Perhaps this is why many of us feel such a sense of betrayal that the so-called Left has joined the knee-jerk campaign against Israel.) Some explain this in relation to one or another aspect of recent Jewish history—the conditions of the Emancipation, the poverty of the shteitl, the marginality of the Jew in Western culture, the advantages to the Jews of a society based on merit and libertarian principles rather than one with an entrenched aristocracy. But I would like to think that there is in this also something of the collective memory of the enslavement long ago in Egypt. Matzah is also Lehem she-onim alav devarim harbeh. The bread upon which we recite/ answer many things. Matzah is the bread of conversation, of discourse. The Seder is a kind of banquet/symposium. During the Seder, we talk for hours: about the Exodus … but also about many related matters that it brings to mind, by association, by implication, by analogy, by other connections. And throughout the Seder, this thin, unadorned bread—perhaps round, hand-baked matzah, with its bumps and unevenness and rough edges and burnt, blackened spots, and the unique aroma that it brings with it from the hot fire—is visible on the middle of the table, enjoying honor of place.

What do we talk about at the Seder, anyway? What is our story? In a world in which culture is becoming increasingly superficial, transient, “international” and “globalized,” we persist in passing down our ancient, seemingly arcane memories.

We read and talk about the text of the Haggadah, of course. The slavery, and the Exodus. Of God and His miracles. Of the state of slavery, of how we got there, and what that bitter experience. We talk about the shock of liberation, the time spent in the desert, the difficulties of being responsible for ourselves—the rebellions, the murmurings, the Israelites desire to turn back. And God, working miracles, and feeding us like a nurturing mother. And how He drew us close to His service. And we speak of the ultimate goal—Eretz Yisrael, a land of our own.

And we speak of our own redemption. It is said that the Haggadah, as we know it today, was shaped in an age when there was no longer a korban pesah. The matzot and the words are a kind of substitute for the Temple ritual. Words, words: the words that Jews love so—words of wisdom, words of depth, words of vision.

The rabbis of those early days saw their own redemption as imminent. For them, the Future Redemption and the redemption from Egypt were one continuum, at times almost one and the same. Pesah mitzrayim, Pesah dorot. Geulat mitzrayim, geulah atidah—the Redemption from Egypt and the Future Redemption. Such words sprung naturally to their lips.

Even before Pesah starts, on Shabbat Hagadol, we read the words of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who says, “Behold l send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.” Why Elijah? He is not a part of the Pesah story, but he is a central figure in the story of the future, faithfully following the Jews through every generation of their exile. At times he is the beggar sitting in rags in Rome, or the holy beggar, the mysterious stranger met in an odd, life-changing encounter. And he is, of course, the harbinger of the Messiah.

According to historian Israel Yuval, when we talk about the redemption, we also talk about that which differentiates us from the Christians.

Each historical period, and its redemption.

The halutzim, self-declared atheists who founded the first kibbutzim in Israel, created Haggadot and celebrated a form of Seder in which the story of the latter-day Return, the rebuilding of the Land, the story of the New Jew, are interwoven; songs of springtime, the lyrical eroticism of Song of Songs, and Alterman’s “the Silver Platter” all have a place in these new haggadot. Auschwitz as enslavement and Beit Alfa or Degania as redemption.

And then, in the 1960s in America, someone suddenly wrote a Freedom Seder—published in the radical Ramparts, no less!—which expanded the scope of the Exodus story to encompass all men, wherever they are, of whatever race or nation, who struggle to overthrow the yoke of oppression and be free. “Kevin Barry” and “We Shall Overcome” joined hands with “Dayyenu.”

And finally, there is the inner story. The Haggadah of inner growth. This is a story well-known to many Hasidic thinkers. The true Exodus is that of psychological redemption: liberation from that which holds you captive within your own soul. The hametz you must burn is within your heart; the meaningless habits, the false ideas, the hang-ups, that weigh you down, that you must let go. One of the new haggadot found in the bookstores this year is Michael Kagan’s Holistic Haggadah, that begins, Zen-like, with the question, “How shall you be different this Passover night?” The Seder as an opportunity for each individuals to start his life afresh, to break through to new insight and new life energy.

And so the story goes on, down through the generations. The Torah has seventy faces. From the one story of the Exodus of the slaves, many stories are born. Pesah is like a symphony, with the many stories and words that Jews tell over the matzah.

First Consciousness and Second Consciousness

Yesterday, while I was saying the Minhah Prayer on my porch, I suddenly noticed that, almost overnight, the tress had suddenly turned into full leaf. This seemed fitting for Passover as the festival of spring. (Actually, this has been a funny year in the cycles of nature: last year’s leaves remained on the tress, turning brown and yellow, well into the new secular year. Within weeks after they finally fell, nubs of new growth appeared, and by Purim the trees were all in blossom.) In any event, provoked the following thoughts. What is the difference between the motif of teshuvah in the autumnal festivals of Tishrei—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; and the spiritual interpretation of Pesah, with its hametz symbolizing bad elements that one must eliminate before Pesah.

In Elul, the mood is one of guilt, of regret, of awareness of the fallibility of human nature. Teshuvah is an attempt to restore one’s relation with God, with the good and the ethical and, if you like, even to restore one’s better, inner self—but it is rooted in a kind of “second consciousness,” that knows all too well the reality of human failure.

Pesah is the holiday of springtime, of new life. The symbolism of hametz is of eliminating that which is sour, corrupt, fetid, stale—but the turn is to new life: fresh grain, uncorrupted, filled with vitality like the greenness encountered everywhere in springtime. It is an attempt to return to the beginning: to the infancy of the nation, to become like children who see the world with open, wonder-filled eyes (Hence the centrality of children at the Passover Seder: so that they may teach us how to see the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim as if for the first time?). Thus, the mind-set of Pesah is, so to speak, “first consciousness”—without the burden of adult knowledge, of adult sophistication and jadedness, of adult guilt and failings, or of adult boredom. “This day you are going out”—for the very first time.

To return to the Rav’s sermon, mentioned a few days ago: the Seder takes us back to the time before the sin of the Golden Calf, to a time of pristine innocence and wonder, when all was still possible, when Israel followed God through the wilderness as a maiden follows her first lover.


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