The Festival of Pesach has three names. Pesach refers specifically to the last plague visited on Egypt: when ‘the messenger’ of the Eternal One ‘passed over’ – pasach – the houses of the Israelites that had been marked out with the blood of a yearling lamb daubed on their doorposts and lintels (Bo, Exodus 12:23). The second biblical name tells us more about the enduring character of the Festival: Chag Ha-matzot – ‘the Feast of Unleavened Bread’ (Ex. 12:15-17): during the festival, leaven banished completely, bread is replaced by an unleavened variety.
The rabbis gave the festival another name: Z’man cheiruteinu – ‘The Season of our freedom’, reminding us of the purpose of the annual celebration. As we read in the Haggadah, the tale of the Exodus crafted by the rabbis and included in the first code of rabbinic law, the Mishnah: B’khol dor va-dor hayyav adam lirot et atzmo k’illu hu yatzah mi-mitzrayim – ‘In every generation each person is obliged to see him/herself as if s/he had gone out from Egypt.’
So, celebrating Pesach is not just about recalling what happened then, it is also about re-enacting the experience of liberation now. We do this by retelling the story at the Seder and sampling all the symbols, in particular: karpas, the spring ‘greens’ of new life and the maror, the ‘bitter herb’, representing slavery – and by removing leaven and eating matzah, the hallmark symbol of the Festival.
But unlike the other symbols, matzah is not straightforward in its meaning. The Torah connects it with the haste of the slaves and their dash for freedom, carrying the dough that had not yet had time to rise (Ex. 12:39). And so matzah may be seen as ‘the bread of freedom.’ By contrast, the Haggadah ‘telling’ of the Exodus story opens with a passage, written in Aramaic, that begins: Ha lahma anya – ‘This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.’
The bread of freedom and the bread of affliction: this is not just an issue of chronology; our ancestors ate the bread of affliction, and then baked the bread of freedom. We too, are called to go on this journey from slavery to freedom. But to do so we have to acknowledge the oppression we experience in our own lives and take steps to liberate ourselves. We can begin this process by taking matzah more seriously. What is matzah after all, but flour and water – plus a maximum of 18 minutes baking-time. Instead of removing leavened foods and replacing them with as many scrumptious non-leaven substitutes that we can find, how about taking an eating cue from modest matzah and simplifying our diet: eating plenty of ‘greens’ in honour of karpas, and simple carbohydrates and proteins in honour of matzah. Judging by the amount of exhausting effort it takes to prepare for Pesach, wouldn’t it be nice if once the festival begins, it could truly be ‘the season of our freedom’? Chag Samei’ach!