Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 12 April 2009

Two Types of Matzah

At the beginning of the seder, we lift up the matzos and say "Ha lachma aniah", "this be the bread of affliction." This seems to set the stage for our understanding of what matzah is meant to symbolize: the slavery, the poverty, the misery of living in Egypt. Forget croissants and doughnuts, we didn't even have Wonder Bread.
Yet later on in the seder we reach Rabban Gamliel's list of essential seder discussion topics and one of the big three is matzah. This time we point at the bread of our constipation and say that it reminds us about how the Egyptians hurriedly kicked us out of their country, so quickly in fact that we had no time to let our breads rise. Matzah was the bake-n-go food alternative and we have it at the seder to remember this.
So which is it? Afflication or freedom?
One might ask a further question: how can matzah be the bread of affliction in the first place, as I suggested at the start of the post. After all, when our ancestors later wax nostalgically about the things they missed from Egypt, like the flesh pots, fish and vegetables, it makes it extremely unlikely that our ancestors ate much matzah during the servitude. Pita, sure, but not matzah. If we only made matzah because of the haste of the departure, then it can't be the bread of our affliction.
There is, however, a way to reconcile the two aspects of the matzah. Remember that matzah isn't simply a representation of what we ate so many years ago now. It is also a powerful symbol of all that is true in the world because, as matzah it also stands for not being chametz.
What is, after all, the difference between chametz and matzah? Air, that's all. The flour and water in both are exactly the same but chamatz is full of air and matzah is devoid of it. We choose a bread to eat on Pesach that is missing emptiness, that lacks a fluffiness that looks impressive and but really contains nothing.
Why did our ancestors get exiled to Egypt? There were, in that time, two choices. There was Egypt but there was also Aram and remember that our Avos spent time in both places. What is the difference between them? What made Egypt the preferred land of the exile?
The answer would be the gross level of civilization in Egypt, as opposed to Aram. Egypt was, at the time, the cultural and political power of the world. It was technically advanced and culturally sophisticated with a powerful religion and social structure. Aram, on the other hand, was a rural culture. From what the Torah tells us of it, life was far simpler there. It's one thing to remain distinct as a nation when the alternative is that much better. It's much harder for an ethnic group to remain cohesive when the surrounding society offers a seeming superiority in everything. One doesn't have to look far back into history to see how Jews rebuffed assimilation when confronted by the emancipation of Western Europe as compared to the relatively barbarity of Poland and Russia. In the East, it was a mark of pride to be a literate Jew surrounded by illiterate Slavs. In the West, it was a mark of pride to be part of the "enlightened" culture.
But it goes beyond that as well. Egypt, as per our Torah, represents materialism at it most completely. Everything was about the physical. Even death was glorified with huge tombs and stored possessions for the dead on their supposed next journey. Egypt couldn't get past the physical while our ancestors knew of the truth of the spiritual. It was a complete contrast with the opposite side proving to be a formidable opponent. Chazal tell us a slave never escaped Egypt. What, no tricky Nubian boy never crossed the fronteir in the dark of night? This statement really is a play on a more recent phrase: You can take the boy outta Egypt, but you can't take the Egypt outta the boy.
"In every generation, each person must see it as if he himself left Egypt." The seder corresponds to this idea. When we start, we are still slaves. As the story in the hagaddah progresses, we become free and finally leave the land o' bondage. Therefore the matzah of the early part of the seder, the lachma aniah is representative of what we represent versus what the world, as exemplified by Egypt, stands for. It is the truth of reality with all the materialistic fluff removed and when was this reality challenged more than when we were oppressed?
But in the second half of the pre-meal seder, we are now free. The matzah is no longer struggling against the power of the outside world. It has triumphed and shown that truth will overcome all attempts by glitzy falsehood to destroy it. It is our pride and principle possession as we leave Egypt.
Why then do we continue eating matzah for seven further days?
The annoying truth that the secular world would prefer to forget is that we are all, in one way or another, slaves. Whether it is to our jobs, our spouses, our lifestyles or even the cell phone on our hips, no one is truly free. Despite promises in the American constitution to the contrary, liberty is elusive and if you don't believe me, try sleeping in tomorrow, showing up late at work and telling our boss: Dude, I'm a free man.
But ultimately, since we are all servants, we have to define who the big boss it. It might be the cell phone, the guy in the corner office, the women with the rolling pin, or it might be God. What's the difference? Ultimately the pride of service. I may have daily obligations but in the final analysis, I work for God. I am His servant and I say this with pride, not shame. Everything I do is rationalized slavery, yes, but I willingly choose it because the matzah tells me I can't hide behind the fluff that would obscure this truth. Chamatz is appealing and beckoning. It promises luxury, a soft taste but what makes it different from matzah is mere air. Matzah reminds me of reality - there is only service of God that is worthwhile in this world.
So it is then that even after we leave Egypt on day 1 of the holiday we continue, as liberated slaves from Egypt, to remember that we are still slaves, only instead of to our passions or some demagogic human rules, to the King of Kings Blessed be He.

3 comments:

Matt said...

I am not sure it is fair to say that the Jewish role is one of mere service to G-D.

We are in many ways partners with G-D.

We even have a contract, or a covenant.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The best way to understand this is to look at V'Zos HaBrachah. Moshe Rabeinu starts off as "Ish HaElokim", the Man o' God. At the end of the parshah he is described as "Eved Elokim", the servant of God from which we learn that being called God's servant is the highest level a person can reach.
Chazal also note this with two Tannaim (I'm lousy with names), one of whom prays for rain and is unsuccessful while the other is. The wife of the unsuccessful Tanna says "But you're supposed to be like a prince in God's home. Why did he listen to the other guy?" And the response is: "Yeah, I'm a prince but he's a servant. I only get to see the King when I'm summoned, he gets to see the King all the time."
This also fits in with your contract comment. You're thinking about an agreement between equals, but I'm defining contract in a more employer-employee form.

SJ said...

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