The Post-Modern Matazah Riddle: My Opening Remarks For Last Year’s Seder.

The Post-Modern Matazah riddle

By Roi Ben-Yehuda

In preparing a Passover seder in which many of my guests are first-timers and non-Jews, I am challenged by a number of factors: There is the barrier of language (some of the texts that we read are in Hebrew), food (some guests are vegetarian, some adhere to Koshrot, still others are Muslims and cannot drink wine), and religion (will the guests take offense at the exclusivists and bellicose passages that we read? Will the Christians day-dream about the “last supper”? Will the atheists’ role their eyes and wonder why we are rehashing these old legends? ).

But above all, my main concern is how best to convey to my guests the true spirit and essence of this wonderful holiday. In the process of thinking about this, I found myself asking: Does the holiday have an essence? If so, can it be extrapolated from a single passage of the haggadah (ritual text)? I am pretty sure that the answer is “no” to both questions, Pesach is simply too rich, diverse, and complex of a holiday for that. Yet I still decided to challenge myself and pick a passage, wrestle with it, and see what I am able produce. What follows is my commentary.

One of the most interesting passages in the Haggadah is known as HaLachma Anya (Aramaic for “the bread of affliction”). It is read at the opening of the story-telling session of the night. The passage is composed of three interrelated stages which I have called: Transformation, Responsibility, and Liberation. While no single passage can fully encapsulate the beauty, grandeur, and power of Pesach, an in-depth exploration of HaLachma Anya, as I hope to show, goes along way. Let us begin our study.

Our passage reads as follows:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.

This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel.

This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.

Transformation: “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The bread of affliction is of course the matzah (unleavened bread) the Jews eat during Passover. The matzah is described as the bread of affliction and suffering, yet we are instructed to feed those who are wanting with this bread. Why? Why offer the hungry and the needy the taste of affliction? Have they not suffered enough? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Britain, has an interesting answer – He reminds us that the rabbis saw the matzah both as the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation. In Deuteronomy 16:3 we read “You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of oni (poverty or distress), for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly.” In the Haggadah the same explanation is used to describe the matzah as a bread of freedom. It is the bread of liberation because we took it with us as we escaped the bondage of slavery. It was the food of our emancipation.

The Post-Modern Matazah riddle: So how does the same piece of bread mean two different things? Well, according to Rabbi Sacks, what the text is actually telling us is that the transformation of the matzah from the bread of affliction to the bread of liberation comes as a result of our willingness to share it with others. He writes:

“Sharing food is the first act in which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the Seder by inviting others to join in. Bread shared is no longer the bread of affliction. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.”

Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and novelist, tells us in his book “If This Is man” that the first sign of humanity in Auschwitz was people’s willingness to share food. In the concluding days of the war, when the Nazis had left all the sickly bodies to die in the camp, Levi and his fellow prisoners stayed alive by cooperating. As Levi explains, this was not business as usual:

“Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the lager said: “Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,” and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the law of the lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that the moment can be dated as the beginning of the change from Haftlinge [prisoner] to men again.”

Responsibility: “Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The Bible reminds us, over and over, that we must use our degrading experience in the land of Egypt to sensitize us to the suffering of others. The idea being that the suffering of our ancestors, which we should imagine as our own, is to be seen as an ennobling experience. We are instructed to care for the wanting because we were once wanting in the land of Egypt.

It is interesting to note that the text lets us know that there is more than one way in which we can be wanting. It is for this reason that it differentiates between those who are needy and those who are hungry. What is the difference between the two? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th century Talmudist and philosopher, explains to us that while the hungry are needy, the needy are not necessarily hungry. One can have all the food and wealth in the world and still be needy. One may be in need of love, respect, dignity, family, country, health, truth, happiness etc. It is for this reason that the text enjoins those who are needy to “celebrate Passover”, and those who are hungry to “come and eat”.

Finally, notice that the text refers to “all” who are needy and hungry. It does not refer to all Jews who are needy and hungry, but to all people. It is true that the text was written by Jews and for Jews, but I want to suggest that the inclusive language is deliberate. As mentioned above, the ethics of Passover, in actuality the ethics of Judaism, revolve around the concept of radical sympathy and empathy for those who are suffering. This call for identification and compassion is not reserved for Jews alone. The universalism of Jewish ethics resulted in the Torah instructing us only once to love our neighbor (who surely was Jewish), while commanding us in no less than thirty six places to care for stranger (who surely was not Jewish) “because you yourself know how it feels to be a stranger – you were strangers in Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9]

To love the stranger is a revolutionary concept – revolutionary in the ancient world with its ethics of tribalism, and revolutionary today with the scrooge of xenophobic nationalism. Of course, for these words not ring hollow, for them not to be an exercise in self-indulgence, we need to ask our selves what does it mean to be a stranger? Who is today’s stranger? And Am I, as a Jew, acting with empathy, compassion, and love towards those who are deemed to be strangers.

Liberation: “This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.” This is a passage born in exile. It literally speaks of a people who are not at home. It is written in Aramaic, and scholars suggest that it was composed during the time of the Babylonian exile (beginning 586 BCE). There is symmetry to these lines: to be in exile is to be enslaved, to be in the land of Israel is to be free. Of course the text has also a symbolic meaning – we are internally enslaved when we are alienated from our true selves. Israel, in this understanding, is not a place, but rather a symbolic psychological and spiritual state of internal freedom. It is in this sense that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1722-1811) had famously stated: “Wherever I go, I am going to Eretz Israel.”

Passover is known in Hebrew is Zman Herutinu (Time of our liberation). It is a holiday of freedom. As such it asks of us to meditate on the meaning of freedom. In his beloved essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” the intellectual Isaiah Berlin distinguished between what he called Negative and Positive freedom. Negative freedom meant freedom from coercion – from being physically constraint. While positive freedom meant freedom to act in accords with my own true nature – to be one’s own master. Throughout history, thinkers have tended to favore one type of freedom over the others. Buddha, Epictetus, Plato, Jesus, Rousseau, and Hegel all emphasized positive freedom, while philosophers like Locke, Mill, Hobbes, and Berlin favored freedom’s negative manifestation.

In contrast, Passover celebrates both types of freedom (in Hebrew they can be respectively referred to as Chufesh and Cherut). We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Egypt, but we know full well that we are still slaves. Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, expressed this idea in the following manner:

“Pesach calls us to be free, free from the tyranny of our own selves, free from enslavement of poverty and inequality, free from the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind. Pesach calls up on us to put an end to all slavery! Pesach cried out in the name of God, “Let my people go.” Pesach summons us to freedom.”

To conclude, a close look at the HaLachma Anya leads us to the two pillars of Pesach: Freedom and Responsibility. In Judaism, the concept of freedom without responsibility is like a boat on dry land. Is this the essence of the holiday? Perhaps? Certainly many secular Jews think so. But as some of you may have noticed, I choose a passage that made no reference to God. Yet God, who had liberated the Jews from slavery, is central to the Passover narrative. It is through God that whole drama of Jewish history unfolds.

In the end, perhaps the essence of Passover is not to be found in the meaning of a particular text, but rather in how we approach the text. The genius of the Jewish people, the secret to their longevity and vitality as a people, has been their paradoxial reverence for tradition and irreverence for dogma. Tonight, we join millions of Jews around the world as they open up an ancient book, ask searching questions, sing songs of praise, and eat delicious food. I hope that your experience is joyful, inspirational, and educational. Let’s begin our seder.


The Agnostic Rabbi


5 responses to “The Post-Modern Matazah Riddle: My Opening Remarks For Last Year’s Seder.

  1. Amazing!!!

    I’ll copy and paste (and translate into my native Spanish) for this Saturday’s seder… keep writing stuff like this!

  2. that is great! Thanks you. The honor is mine. I will love to have a Spanish version of this piece. Can you send me a copy?

  3. B E A U T I F U L !

    Love it

  4. I’ll send it tomorrow, but beware that I’m not an official translator but an Argentinean with some English skills….

  5. That is cool. I will appreciate anything you send.

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