We’ve made Kiddush and washed hands. We digressed slightly to dip a vegetable and to put away a piece of Matzah. Now the host picks up the Matzah. Usually that’s the signal that it’s time to eat. After all that is how we usually begin the Shabbat or Holiday feast, with the lifting the special Shabbat bread.
But not on Pesach night. Instead it is time to tell the tale of what Matzah represents in our shared history.
The host continues “This is the poor bread that our ancestors ate while in the land of Egypt”.
Is that so? Were we not taught in school that we eat Matzah because the Children of Israel rushed out of Egypt and they didn’t have time to allow their dough to rise? To compound the question, the Haggadah itself gives this answer later on.
Which is the correct reason for our eating Matzah: is it the poor man’s bread, or was it because the bread had no time to rise?
Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, based on the 16th century writings of the Maharal, explains that Matzah is indeed both, but not at the same time. The food can stay the same, but our attitude can change the way we relate to it. Seder night involves a dramatic shift of attitude. That is expressed in the two different ways that we relate to the central food of the night - Matzah.
In the beginning of the night, the poor man’s bread represents the way the Jews viewed the physical world around them, tasteless. In the depth of slavery they had no desire for life or living. In modern parlance we might call it a national state of depression.
Chassidic writings often emphasize that the national story of slavery and freedom is reflected in the personal stories of slavery and freedom that each of us experience in our lives. Each of us may feel that we wish we could be someone greater than we are ‘if only…’ We feel held back from our true selves by our nature, our upbringing and our life circumstances. We feel enslaved.
For someone trapped in the rat-race of life, the addiction to gratification, or the endless grind of meaningless existence, life is slavery indeed. All food, from the humblest of Matzah to the most lavish material provision, will taste of ‘the bread of affliction’. Nothing will ever be enough.
On the other hand, one who has broken free from slavery experiences the world in a different way. They live a life prioritising love, giving, and making a difference over materialism, honour and power. Such a person sees and tastes the world differently. Material goods become a means and not an ends. We eat to have energy to do the great things we truly desire.
The Israelites left Egypt in a brief moment. That moment contained within it the sense of freedom to truly live for what matters most in this world - to serve as a partner with God Himself in bringing this world to perfection. In their rush to embrace the new world of possibilities, they were delighted to have the simplest of foods. They were focused on far more important issues. The food that would sustain them, humble though it may be, tasted of the moment of freedom itself.
To one who is a slave, nothing is enough. To one who is truly free, the simplest food can taste of eternity. Matzah starts the night as ‘bread of affliction’ and becomes the bread of freedom. It is not the Matzah that changes. It is us.
Seder night invites us to take the journey and to discover the taste of freedom.