Near the beginning of the Passover Seder we engage in the ritual of Yachatz when we break the middle matzah. It is the fourth step of the Seder and unlike the majority of other Seder rituals, it is not accompanied by words. The only sound we hear is the breaking of the matzah. It is one moment when we focus on what is broken – in ourselves, among our people, and in our world. (Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, The Lovell Hagaddah, p. 40)
The instruction is to divide the matzah into two unequal halves. This too seems fitting as so much of the brokenness in our world and in our selves is the result of inequalities. One person, one group who seems to be relegated to always receiving the smaller share, the crumbs that are left. At the seder the smaller half is returned to its place between the two whole matzahs where it is overshadowed, diminished even further by its placement.
The larger piece is wrapped and hidden by the seder leader or the children according to the custom at your Seder and is used later for the afikomen. This week we are searching for the missing piece. The larger part of our humanity, the larger part of our dignity, the larger part of our humility, the larger part of our integrity – have they been hidden away like the afikomen?
We read the narrative from which the Passover Seder emerges. It is a narrative of a smaller people, a group of strangers, of immigrants, maligned with vulgar names. Those vulgarities that said not a thing about their supposed subject but said much about those who uttered them.
More than 1500 years ago the Talmud explained that the best way to fulfill the commandment of the matzah on Passover was not with full sheets (loaves) of matzah but with broken pieces because poor people cannot afford full sheets (loaves), just crumbs. (Bavli Berachot 39b) As Jews we have so often been relegated to the smaller portion – overshadowed, maligned, and diminished by the countries in which we lived, the people who lived there, and the governments that oppressed us. Our tradition sees it as a religious imperative to recollect that history, “Remember that you were strangers in a strange land.” (Exodus 22:21) Not just to remember it but also to use it to shape our behavior, both our rituals at home and the way we engage in the world around us.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the modern Theologian reminds us that the central principle of Judaism is to assert the infinite value of each human being and that human being created in the image of God. As such, it is our responsibility as Jews to maximize the dignity of every human being.
In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King penned his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he cemented his legacy as one of America’s great moral leaders. In it he speaks to us at this moment, on the Shabbat before our national day in his honor, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
We have heard the breaking of the matzah and we have seen what is broken and unequal and left in crumbs. We have lived in yachatz for generations and centuries. And thankfully we live in yachatz no more. Let us follow our religious imperative to maximize the dignity of every human being and make real the promise of democracy.