BLOG POST: Rabbi Jonathan Feldman
March 29, 2018
Life has its ups and downs. We have some good months, and we have some not so good months. At one moment we get a promotion, and then we lose a job, we have a good relationship, and then we get heartbroken. But there are times in our lives when we are in a bad way, and then things take a turn for the better, and at those moments we feel gratitude to the Almighty for helping our lives move in the right direction.
The Rabbis (Talmud Pesachim 116a) tell us that when we fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus, we begin talking about our denigrated state and we conclude with praise for our being saved. According to Shmuel, the denigrated state was the slavery in Egypt, and the praise is for G-d freeing us. In the Seder we have symbols and stories that remind us of both these states. I would like to focus on the symbolic elements of the Seder, and trace these two themes of denigration and suffering, and freedom and joy. Parts of the seder remind us of our freedom, like eating and drinking in a position of leisure and comfort, which is why we lean, and parts remind us of our suffering, like eating the bitter herbs (which is why I take a bite of actual horseradish, to feel the burn).
The Matzah embodies both of these messagages, it represents both slavery and freedom. At the beginning of the Haggadah we start by holding up the matza and saying. This is ‘lachma anya’, which can mean either the bread of poverty or the bread of suffering. This is the unadorned, dried, unflavored bread like the bread which our ancestors had to eat in Egypt when they were slaves. When you read books about the Holocaust you read about the dry hard bread they survived on. You also read about how they would not eat the whole morsel at once, but would squirrel away part of it for later or for the next day because you did not know when you would next be getting any food. This is one of the explanations of why we break the matza and put the larger half aside as the afikomen, like a poor person who keeps food for later. All of this is meant to allow us to experience what it is like to be a poor person who is suffering.
By contrast, when we get to the end of Magid, the telling of the story of the Exodus in the Haggadah, how do we describe the matza? Rabban Gamliel says. Why do we eat this Matzah? We eat it because the bread that our ancestors had baked did not have time to rise because G-d took us out so quickly. It is the bread of freedom, the bread that represents the quickness with which G-d saved us. So the bread that reminds us of suffering and pain can also be the bread that reminds of how quickly G-d saved us in Egypt. The message is that sometimes we are in the darkness and nothing seems to go our way, and we feel like there is no way out. And things change, a medical treatment works, we get a job lead, and the circumstances that brought about our anguish and pain turn into the vehicle through which we feel joy and appreciation of the blessings. May this Passover be a time when our pain and adversity turns into joy and celebration.