By Maya Bernstein
Matzah is a pretty big deal on Passover. In fact, so much of this holiday is focused getting rid of chametz and making space for the matzah to reign for a week. I loved cleaning for Passover even as a child. My favorite part was going through the coat closet, which smelled of my parents, the winter, secrets, and possibilities. As a young girl, it was my job to check each pocket of every coat in the house. You never knew what you were going to find, coins, slips of forgotten paper, candy wrappers, and, most excitingly, morsels of chametz. It was doubly rewarding to pull out real food. It made the search worthwhile, confirming that the task wasn’t mere theatrics, and, best of all, we had a finders-keepers (as long as it’s eaten before Passover) rule. Yum.
If you think about it, though, it’s wild how similar matzah and chametz really are (especially if you eat good matzah, home-made, the kind that tastes like pita, which is the kind the Torah intended…) The difference between them is a matter of seconds – matzah unattended for just a minute enters chametz territory. The Sfat Emet, the second Gerrer Rebbe, quotes the Zohar, which points out that even the letters of the Hebrew words “chametz” and “matzah” are the same, except for the “heh” and the “chet.” And the difference between those letters is as miniscule as a little line. If then, chametz and matzah are not so different, what is it about matzah? Why is it the focal point on this holiday?
Passover is essentially a celebration of the opportunity for rebirth. The People of Israel literally left the “narrow straits” of Egypt, went through the Red Sea, and emerged new. Passover reminds us that we have the potential, as individuals, as organizations, and as a community, to continue to grow. Growth, re-birth, is a natural and necessary state of the human condition. Sometimes external circumstances force it upon us. Other times we challenge ourselves to evolve. But if we stop growing, we stagnate.
If, then, Passover is a simultaneous reminder and imperative for us to continue to grow, matzah is the metaphor of how to do it. For it is impossible to be in a continual growth-state. Those moments of growth and change, of birth and new possibilities, are necessary, but once they occur, they demand time, structures, processes, to allow them to settle and become the new reality. Our natural state, then, cannot be one of re-birth. It must be one of living with the ramifications of that birth. The problem is, we often get too comfortable, and stop growing. Matzah reminds us, and shows us how, to keep pushing ourselves. Matzah has four core elements, which can be paired to complement each other, and which are powerful metaphors for how we must act in order to grow and change:
1. Haste & Humility
The most famous reason for eating Matzah is explained in the Passover Haggadah, citing the book of Exodus 12:39:
This matzah – why do we eat it?
Because our forefathers’ dough did not have time to leaven before the Holy One, Blessed is He, King of the Heavenly King of All Kings, was revealed to them, and redeemed them, as it is written: “And they baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into cakes of matzah, for it had not leavened; for they were driven from Egypt, unable to linger, and also they had not prepared provisions for themselves.”
Matzah is associated with haste. This is the first critical element necessary for transformative growth. We need to make the leap. The Israelites knew that they were going to leave Egypt eventually. They’d watched Moses and Aaron for years, and had witnessed all of the plagues. The exodus didn’t come completely out of nowhere. And yet, it could happen only in haste. The moment of transformation must be a leap. It cannot be analyzed, over thought, brought to committees, and pored over. True growth necessitates a wild jump, a moment of “let’s just do this.”
But Matzah also symbolizes humility and modesty. The Sefat Emet writes in his commentary on Passover that “Matza is when the dough does not change. For it changes through the process of leavening. And it hints at the idea that the Children of Israel did not change in exile…they came into Egypt as the Children of Israel, and they left as the Children of Israel.” They stayed true to their core, to their mission, to their identity.
This combination, the ability to take a wild leap, to try something completely new and different, and yet to do it while staying true to your mission, to yourself, to what is, at its most basic element, still you, is what leads to successful growth.
2. Dichotomy & Dialogue
Matzah also symbolizes contradiction. At the beginning of the Seder, we point to the matzah, and say:
“This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are bent in hunger, come and eat of it. All who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us.”
Are we poor, eating this bread of affliction, the bread of the poor, or are we rich and free, able to welcome in the destitute into our homes? Matzah is both. It represents two conflicting notions at the same time. That too is a necessary characteristic of growth and re-birth. In our normal lives, we must choose sides. We must say: this is what I stand for. This is what I believe, and we must live our lives accordingly. Our life choices, our organization’s programs, our community’s influence, all reflect whatever sides we have chosen. For if we don’t choose sides, if we don’t commit to a way of being, then we cannot live. But if we stick with our sides, if we never doubt, question, look at the other side, then we cannot grow. Matzah is a reminder that everything has another angle, and that in order to grow, we must hold conflicting ideas, to see the perspective of the other who thinks radically differently from us, to question our deepest beliefs.
But this too must be paired lest it become overwhelming. And it is paired with another powerful characteristic of matzah – that of dialogue. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim plays with the Hebrew word for affliction, “oni,” and tells us that “oni” sounds like “la’anot,” to answer. “Lechem Oni, poverty bread – this is the bread we use to answer many questions.” And the Sfat Emet adds: “’Bread that answers many questions’” – it seems that you cannot eat matzah without talking a lot about it.” When we enter the growth state, and begin to see multiple, conflicting, paradoxical paths, we must be in relationship with others. We must gather with those who think differently, see differently, and learn from them. We must allow our process to become shared, and that will keep us honest, and push us, and challenge us to grow better.
As we enter this holiday of Passover, this time of celebration of growth and possibilities for re-birth, let us adopt these characteristics – haste paired with humility, and dichotomy paired with dialogue. They just might help us make the leap, as individuals, as organizations, as a community, from whatever narrow straits that bind us, to the deserts of possibilities that lie ahead.
Maya Bernstein is an Associate at UpStart Bay Area.