Rituals and symbols play a very important part in Jewish life. Pesach is a wonderful case in point. All those symbols on the Seder plate: karpas (green vegetable), maror (bitter herb), charoset (chopped nuts, apple and kiddush wine), beitzah (roasted egg), z’ro’a (roasted lamb-shank bone).
The most powerful symbol of all is the item that’s not on the Seder plate, and has its own unique role in the Seder – and in the festival as a whole: matzah.
In an important sense, matzah is the defining symbol of Pesach. We read in parashat Emor (Leviticus 23 :6) that matzah actually gives its name to the festival: Chag Ha-Matzot, ‘The Festival of Unleavened Bread’. Strictly speaking, the word Pesach, evoking the final and tenth plague against Egypt, when the Eternal One ‘passed over’ – pasach – the houses of the Israelites (Bo, Exodus 12:27), is the name given to twilight on the evening before (Lev. 23:5); recalling the sacrificing of lambs by each household. It was only because the slaves marked their doorposts and lintels with blood, that the final plague passed over them (Ex. 12:3-13).
Thus, the Israelites participated in their own liberation. They also showed their readiness for freedom, when they fled Egypt so quickly their dough had no time to rise (Ex. 12:39) – hence the significance of matzah as the bread of freedom to be eaten throughout the festival (Ex. 13:6). Only by removing leaven and eating matzah can the descendants of the liberated slaves indicate our identification with the Exodus.
But then, in the Haggadah, the rabbis’ re-telling of the Exodus story, matzah is referred to as lachma anya, which both means, both, ‘the bread of affliction’ and ‘the poor bread’. There’s a very dramatic moment in the Seder, when the leader uncovers the plate on which there are three matzot, breaks the middle matzah (and then hides the larger part of it as the afikomen – the Greek word for ‘dessert’ – to be found by the children after the meal). Holding up the plate, the leader declares in Aramaic – the vernacular of the time: ‘Ha lachma anya … This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.’
So, how can matzah, simultaneously, be the bread of freedom and the bread of affliction? Because those who are oppressed are challenged to struggle for their own liberation. Of course, that is a tall order. We only have to think of those enslaved in the world today. How do the enslaved break their chains? Struggling for liberation involves garnering the courage and determination to gather the broken pieces of our battered selves together – hence that broken matzah ‘between’. It also demands the active assistance of others. In the Haggadah, the Eternal One is the lone hero. In the Torah we find the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, who saved the baby boys from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree (Sh’mot, Ex. 1:15-22), and the sibling-leaders, Miriam, Moses and Aaron. May the Exodus story and the humble matzah that we will eat throughout the festival, inspire us to challenge slavery and persecution in every place. Chag Pesach Samei’ach!