Shabbat HaGadol / Pesach
Rabbi Bernard Fox
“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzot, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” (Devarim 16:3)
One of the mitzvot of Pesach is the prohibition against eating leavened bread. In place of leavened bread, we eat matzah. The first night of Pesach we are obligated to eat matzah. The remaining days of the festival, we are not obligated to eat matzah, but we are prohibited from eating chametz – leavened products.
In the above passage, the Torah explains that the matzah recalls the bread eaten during bondage. How does the matzah recall the bread eaten during bondage? Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the while in bondage, the Jews were forced to constantly labor for their Egyptian masters. The Egyptians would not provide their Jewish slaves with the time required to mix the dough for their bread and then allow it to rise. Instead, once the dough was mixed, the Jews were forced to immediately bake the bread. The dough did not have the opportunity to rise. The resulting loaves had the unleavened form of matzah.
“And one takes the middle matzah and breaks into two parts … and he lifts the Seder plate and recites, “This is the bread of affliction,” until “How is this night different.” (Shulchan Aruch 473:6)
Another fundamental commandment performed on Pesach is sipur yetziat mitzrayim – the recounting of our redemption from Egypt. This mitzvah is fulfilled through the Pesach Seder. One of the early steps in the Seder is YaChatz – breaking the middle matzah. Shulchan Aruch explains this process. The middle matzah is broken and half is retuned to the Seder plate. The plate is then lifted and the reader recites: “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in Egypt.” In other words, the reader explains that the broken matzah recalls the bread that the Jews ate during their bondage in Egypt. The identification of matzah with the affliction in Egypt is based upon our passage in which the Torah refers to the matzah as “bread of affliction.”
“They baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt as unleavened cakes, for it had not leavened, for they were driven out of Egypt, and they could not tarry, and also, they had not made provisions for themselves.” (Shemot 12:39)
In the above passage, the Torah explains that Bnai Yisrael left Egypt in tremendous haste. They did not have the opportunity to prepare adequately for their journey. They could not allow their dough to mix. Instead, they mixed the dough and immediately baked it. The product was unleavened cakes.
Based on this passage, the Talmud explains the significance of the matzah. Raban Gamliel explains that the matzah recalls our redemption. He explains that at the Seder we are required to explain that the matzah we will eat is intended to remind us of the haste with which our ancestors left Egypt. His comments are based upon our passage in the Torah. The comments of Raban Gamliel are incorporated into the Seder and read prior to fulfilling the commandment to eat matzah.
In short, the Torah suggests two alternative explanations for matzah. In Sefer Devarim, the Torah explains that matzah recalls our affliction in Egypt. In Sefer Shemot, the Torah suggests that matzah recalls that haste of our redemption from Egypt.
Paradoxically, both of these messages are associated with matzah during the course of the Seder. At the opening of the Seder, we declare that the matzah recalls our bondage. But before eating the matzah, we read Raban Gamliel’s interpretation of matzah. In this interpretation, the matzah is associated with the redemption from bondage. In other words, the process of sipur requires that we recall both our bondage and our redemption. Both of these phenomena are symbolized by the matzah.
We can easily understand the importance of recalling our bondage and our redemption. The full meaning and significance of our redemption can be fully appreciated when we remember the bondage from which we were redeemed. However, it is odd and paradoxical that the same object – matzah – is used to symbolize both of these elements of our experience in Egypt. Why did the Torah not create two separate objects – each designed to recall one of the two elements?
Sforno’s comments also address this issue. He explains that the Torah intends to communicate a message. During their bondage in Egypt, the Jews were oppressed by their masters. The oppression of Bnai Yisrael was epitomized by the bread they were forced to eat. The Egyptians would not even afford their Jewish slaves the time to bake their bread properly. They pressured the Jews to hurriedly prepare and bake their bread. The result was unleavened matzah. At the moment of redemption, the demoralized Egyptians urged the Jews to hurry. Again, the bread that the Jews baked epitomized the urgency of the Egyptians. But this urgency was not motivated by their desire to oppress the Jews. Instead, their urgency was motivated by panic. They could not endure another moment of suffering!
Sforno is explaining that the Egyptians demonstrated
urgency in two situations. In both
instances, their urgency was expressed in a similar behavior. They hastened Bnai Yisrael to prepare their
bread without allowing their dough to rise.
But in the first instance – during their oppression of the Jews – this
urgency was an expression of oppression.
In the second instance – at the moment of redemption – this urgency
expressed the complete humiliation and defeat of the Egyptians.
Sforno’s comments indicate that the urgency of the Egyptians in these two different situations in some manner communicates a fundamental message regarding the redemption. What is this message?
Apparently, the miracle of the redemption from Egypt is not merely that a nation of slaves was liberated from the oppression of the most powerful nation in the civilized world. But the miracle can only be fully appreciated if we recognize the total and sudden reversal that Bnai Yisrael and the Egyptians experienced. Bnai Yisrael did not gradually achieve liberation from oppression and freedom as the power and authority of their masters slowly declined. Instead, in a few months, the Jewish people emerged from a condition of abject subjugation and tyranny into a state of total freedom. Their masters – who once would not allow them a few moments to properly prepare their bread – were reduced to trembling petitioners. They begged their former slaves to spare them and to leave posthaste and end their suffering! It is this total and abrupt reversal that captures the gravity and magnitude of the miracle of the redemption.
Still, why is matzah used to symbolize both the severity of the oppression and the totality of the Egyptians’ demise? Sforno is answering this question. An illustration will help explain this point. It is difficult to appreciate the speed of a fastball thrown by an accomplished pitcher. We lack a basis for comparison. But if we want to truly appreciate the talent and skills of this pitcher, we must create a contrast. We can do this by placing on a single-viewing screen two pitches. One is the fastball of the professional and the other is the best effort of an accomplished amateur. On the split screen, we can see both pitches progress through time and over distance towards the batter. Now, we can more fully comprehend the remarkable speed of the professional’s pitch.
According to Sforno, the full miracle of the redemption can only be appreciated by recognizing the totality and abruptness of the reversal experienced by Bnai Yisrael and the Egyptians. The reversal only becomes clear when the severity of the oppression is contrasted with the panic of the Egyptians at the moment of redemption. But, like the two pitches in our illustration, the contrast between the oppression and the redemption can only be fully appreciated when they are viewed side-by-side – on a split screen. The matzah provides this “split screen.” A single object – the matzah – captures and communicates the degree of oppression and the total demise of the Egyptians. In matzah, the two experiences are communicated side-by-side. This dual symbolism within a single object eloquently communicates to us the totality and suddenness of the redemption and thereby, the extent of the miracle of the redemption.