Thoughts on Pesach from Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz

The Mystery of the Matzah

When describing why the Jews ate Matzah when they were leaving Egypt, the Torah states: “They baked the dough which they had taken out of Egypt, for it had not become leavened. For they were driven out of Egypt and were not able to tarry and had not prepared provisions for the journey.” Exodus 12:39.

From the preceding verse, it clearly appears that eating matzah during the Exodus was a matter of duress and not choice. The Jews were compelled to eat Matzah because the Egyptians in their frenzy to drive them out of Egypt would not wait until the dough of the Hebrews became leavened. If that is correct, then the Matzah appears to be a symbol of degradation. The helpless condition of the Jews allowed them to be driven out and forced them to eat the poorest of all breads; that which was unleavened. It was the food of slaves.

Nevertheless, the Torah established the Matzah as one of the bases of the celebration of Pesach:

Seven days you shall eat Matzah as you eliminate all leavening from your homes. . . Anyone eating leavening (Chametz), his soul will be cut off, from the first day to the seventh day. Exodus 12: 14-15;

In addition it states, “You are to watch over the Matzot for in the midst of that day (of the Exodus) I (God) took your multitudes out of the Land of Egypt.” Exodus 12: 17. In his commentary on this verse, Rashi makes no mention of the Matzah, but he does comment on the Maror. “They were commanded to eat Maror as a memory (of the verse) ‘and they (The Egyptians) embittered their (The Jews’) lives.’”

Rabban Gamliel stated in the Mishnah, and it is repeated in the Haggadah, that the Matzah is one of the three items that must be discussed at the Seder to fulfill the obligation of telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

One who did not discuss these three subjects on Pesach did not fulfill his obligation. These are the Paschal Sacrifice, the Matzah, and the Maror. Pesachim 116a-b.

The Rambam also maintains that the discussion of these three subjects is necessary to explain, “what is called Aggadah.” Mishneh Torah, Chametz Umatzah, 7:5.

In addition, the Talmud elevates the status of the Matzah by declaring, “the Matzah requires ‘Haseba’ (reclining).” Pesachim 108a. It is to be eaten in a state of reclining. Rashi explains this as follows: “as (do) free people, for it is a reminder of redemption.” Ad locum. The Rashbam (Ad locum) and the Rambam also require this practice. Mishneh Torah, Chametz Umatzah, 7:8.

If the Jews were compelled to eat Matzah by the Egyptians and it was the food of slaves, why do the Torah and Rabbis elevate it to such a high level? In addition, what is especially difficult to explain about the Mitzvah of Matzah is that although it seems that it originated when the Jews were leaving Egypt under duress, the Torah describes that in reality, it was eaten in Pesach Mitzrayim, the celebration of Passover while the Jews were still technically slaves and prior to the actual Exodus. The lamb whose blood was used to place on the doorposts and lintle prior to the tenth and final plague was eaten in a sacrificial ritual, “and they shall eat the meat on that night, roasted and together with Matzot and Merorim (bitter herbs) they shall eat it.” Exodus 12:18. Why was there a need to eat Matzah on that night? At that time, no one was pursuing the Jews or forcing them to leave. They had ample time to allow the dough to leaven. Why could they not use leavened bread?

The Torah here demonstrates that there is something special about Matzah over and above the reason offered during the Exodus. We see Matzah found throughout the sacrificial system in various ways. “All meal offerings are Matzah with the exception of the Chametz in the loaves of thanksgiving (“Toda”) (offered by an individual where some of the loaves are Chametz) and the two loaves (Shtei Halechem) (offered by the community on Shavuoth) which are offered Chametz. . .” Menachot 52b. These two exceptions, however, were not brought on the altar. The Rambam explains the law in the following manner, “All the meal offerings that are sacrificed on the altar are Matzah.” Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sacrifices 12:14. No Chametz could be brought on the altar.

In addition, the sacred Showbread (Lechem Hapanim) which was placed weekly inside the Temple and then eaten by the priests also had to be Matzah. Anyone who caused them to become leavened was liable to Makot (flogging). Rambam, ibid 12:19. See also Menachot 57b.

We thus see that the Matzah is an inherent aspect of the sacrificial system. Since the Matzah was a requirement for the sacrificial process, the Torah intended that when the Jews left Egypt they should be involved in a crucial aspect of the sacrificial system which would take effect in their future existence in the land of Israel. The Mincha sacrifice had three basic components which would define the relationship of the Jewish people with God. 1. It would come from grain which would be grown in the land of Israel; 2. The general rule of grain sacrifices (Menachot) is that they were offered as a free will offerings; and 3. It would require constant diligence and attention to make sure that the offering would remain Matzah and not become leavened. (See Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 137).

The Matzah, thus, is not simply the result of an exigent circumstance, but it looks forward to a glorious future in the land of Israel. Indeed, the Exodus itself could be seen as an act of sacrifice or self-sacrifice and therefore needed to be accompanied by the Matzah as a sacrificial symbol. (See Jeremiah 2:2, where the Prophet Jeremiah lauds Israel for following God into the wilderness.) Thus, today when we eat Matzah at our Pesach Seder, we also look forward to the reestablishment of the Temple and the offerings which we will bring at that time. We also declare that we will follow God wherever he may lead us.

 

The Seder and Human Freedom

In describing the requirement of reading the Haggadah on the Seder nights, the Mishnah states, that one must begin with a description of the low point in Jewish history and conclude with the highest level of Jewish history. (Matchil begnut umesayeim beshvach) Pesachim 116a. There is a controversy in the Talmud (also at Pesachim 116a) about the exact meaning of that requirement. Rav states (other commentaries say it is Rava) the genut or negative aspect of Jewish history begins with the passage which states, “at first our ancestors were worshippers of idols.” This passage concludes in the Haggadah with praise by telling us that, “now, God brought us close to worship and serve him.”

Shmuel (other commentaries say it is Rav Yosef) states the passage beginning with, “we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Avadim Hayinu) is the lowest point in our history. This second passage concludes with a description of God taking us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Ad Locum

Thus, it appears that Rav and Shmuel are arguing over two different types of slavery. Rav says that the lowest point is when a person worships idols, or spiritual slavery. Shmuel appears to say that it is physical slavery which is the lowest point of man.  There is no resolution of what is the correct passage to start from and thus, the Rabbenu Channanel tells us, “and now we state both passages.” Ad locum.

In the Haggadah the issue of redemption from Egypt i.e. our physical redemption from slavery (Avadim Hayinu), precedes the statement of our redemption from idolatry to the worship of God. The reason for this is that the Talmudic passage concludes with the statement that Rav Nachman began by stating, “we were slaves in Egypt.” There is no reason offered as to why Rav Nachman chose to begin with, Avadim Hayinu.

The question then is why did Rav Nachman place our physical slavery before our spiritual slavery? Isn’t spiritual slavery, believing in idols, a more negative aspect than physical slavery? Shouldn’t that be the lowest point in our history?

We are thus forced to investigate in a deeper sense what physical slavery really means. The Torah teaches us that when Moshe came to ignite hope in the people of Israel during their servitude, they were not able to listen to him because of, “their shortness of breath and hard labor.” Shemot 6:9. It is a remarkably accurate statement that a slave cannot even take a deep breath which is required for the process of thought. All the elements which define human life cannot exist if one is a slave. He cannot possess anything of his own, his time does not belong to him, he has no ability to choose or to make any decision. The slave has no past and no future, and is no different than any domesticated animal. (Aristotle calls slaves, tools with life. Politics I:4) Ultimately, he loses the mind that a human being must have in order to imagine or entertain a true concept of God.

The idol worshipper may believe in false gods, but at least there is hope that he can use his reason to one day discover the truth. A slave, on the other hand, is precluded from even the possibility of spiritual development. And that is why Rav Nachman and the Haggadah deemed our physical slavery to be an even lower level than our spiritual slavery.

This explanation (that slavery prevents people from contemplating God) allows us to answer a classic question. We say in our Friday night Kiddush that the Sabbath, “is the first of the days that are called holy in memory of the Exodus from Egypt.” How does the Sabbath remind us of the Exodus? The answer is that God created the Sabbath in order to prevent us from becoming slaves again, – not slaves to Pharaoh, but slaves to other “taskmasters” such as our jobs, or other mundane issues in our lives. God gave us the Sabbath to ensure that we would continue to take time out from the everyday world in order to contemplate Him and His Torah. A person who spends no time contemplating God is merely a tool with life.

Thus, at the Seder, we begin with Avadim Hayinu to emphasize that we are not merely celebrating our freedom, but the ability to utilize that freedom to contemplate and grow closer to God throughout the year.

 

The Special Relationship Between God and Israel as Proclaimed by the Seder

We read in the Haggadah with regard to the rasha, the wicked son – L’fi shehotzi et atzmo min a haklal, caphar b’ikar – “because he excluded himself from the community, he denies God.”    Why is excluding oneself from the community necessarily a denial of God? Why can’t a Jew believe in God, but live on his own, without being part of the Jewish community? What about non-Jews? They are not part of the Jewish community. Does that mean they deny God? There does not seem to be a logical connection.

There are two parts that need to be explained. 1. What does it mean to take oneself out of the community? And 2. Why is this considered a denial of God?

With regard to taking oneself out of the community, this is not talking geographically or to non-Jews. It refers to Jews who deny their Jewish identity. By choosing to abandon their Jewish identity (not due to compulsion) they are in fact denying God.

What is the connection between a Jew denying his Jewish identity and a denial of God? In order to understand this, we must understand the basic message of the seder.

We say in the Haggadah, b’chol dor v’dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mimitzraim – in every generation each person (Jew) is obligated to see himself as though he came out of Egypt. It is not enough for us to remember what happened to our forefathers, we have to see ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt. How do we actually accomplish this? How can we see ourselves as leaving a place that we have never been to?

The Haggadah within the context of the seder offers the solution. The Haggadah is replete with the idea that God has a special relationship with the Jewish people. We say God took us out Himself and not with an angel, Ani v’lo Malach. We also quote the verse in Devarim, “Has God ever attempted to come and take unto him a nation from the midst of another nation with signs and miracles. . .?” (Devarim 4:34) We do not mention Moshe’s name in the Haggadah because we want to remember that it was God Himself who took us out. We say V’hi Sheamda, which proclaims that it is God who saves or rescues us in every generation.

This unique and special relationship between God and Israel is clearly explained by the Rambam. He states, “for our eyes saw (the revelation at Sinai) and no one else did. Our eyes heard and no one else did, the fire, the voice and the flames.” (Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 8:1)

So, to fulfill the commandment of seeing oneself as if he had left Egypt, it does not mean primarily to pretend that we actually were physically in Egypt; but to acknowledge and proclaim that God’s special providence over the Jewish people is exactly the same today as it was in Egypt at the time of the Exodus.

So when someone says that he believes in God, but he no longer wishes to be Jewish, what he is really saying is that there is no need to be Jewish because Jews do not have a special relationship with God. Denying that special relationship is tantamount to denying God Himself.

 

 

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