For the past two years I’ve enjoyed teaching a Talmud class of dynamic and devoted Chizuk Amuno members. We studied Jewish law and ethics and debated about our responsibilities toward others in society. We gained insight into the thought process of the ancient rabbis who advanced Judaism and added their wisdom and vocabulary to our understandings of being Jewish.
Anticipating Passover these last weeks we studied Talmudic texts about preparing for Pesah and the Seder. Torah tells us, “No leavened bread shall be seen with you.” Torah tells us why. “You shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal God did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” In our class we discovered how seriously the rabbis view God’s command in Torah to avoid hametz throughout our holiday. “One who searches for leaven must also render it null and void in his heart so he doesn’t even think about it on Pesah.”
Torah describes matzah as “lehem oni – the bread of affliction.” The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shmuel plays with the Hebrew word “oni – affliction,” which can also mean “answer.” He tells us matzah is the “bread over which one answers matters,” which of course leads us to the Four Questions and our Seder Table discussions.
Matzah is an amazing symbol. It represents both the affliction of slavery and the promise of freedom. As we retell at our Sedarim, slaves eat matzah. A slave’s life is most humble. In contrast, the taskmaster eats hametz. He exalts himself and believes that others must do his bidding. His is a lavish style of food and life.
That’s why the Talmudic rabbis teach us to shun hametz. For fifty-one weeks each year we don’t attach value judgments to our daily bread. On Passover we live the cliché – we are what we eat. Freedom and equality are what we seek.
Matzah symbolizes every good intention or simple truth. Hametz, leavened and fermented grains, represents every good intention exploited, every simple truth disguised. We clean it out of our homes and kitchens on Passover for this religious reason. To affirm in our lives the master story and ethical vision of the Jewish people.
Bakers make Matzah with the same five grains they use to bake bread – wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. Think of it this way. Matzah is anything with the potential to become hametz. Let’s think of ourselves. We strive for humility, not arrogance. We don’t always succeed. On Passover fermented grain implies personal and social excess. Unleavened bread suggests the modesty and human dignity we intend.
Matzah is a potent symbol of our ideals. As my Talmud students learned, cleaning our homes for Passover and avoiding hametz throughout the holiday is a demonstration of our beliefs, our moral vision, and our best hopes for ourselves and all people.
Hag Sameah v’Kasher – Enjoy a joyous and Happy Passover!