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Mitzvas Matzah: How We Choose to Tell a Story

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Mar 2, 2021

On first blush, the mitzvah of achilas matzah seems straightforward. Al shum mah? This matzah that we point to and consume, what is its significance? The Hagaddah proffers the well-known answer that it represents the bread that did not have a chance to rise upon our narrow escape from the servitude in Mitzrayim. However, as in life itself, the issue is far from simple. For while we understand the matzah’s historical resonance, the Torah deepens the significance of this mitzvah by referring to the bread as lechem oni. 

The Gemara, in Pesachim 115b, provides two different explanations as to why matzah is given this designation. According to one opinion it refers to aniyus — remembering our days of poverty and servitude. According to a second opinion, it refers to the redemption — lechem she’onim alav devarim harbeh, bread that is used as the fulcrum in the telling of the story of freedom and redemption. The meforshim are puzzled as to why the same object is utilized for two opposite emotions and experiences — poverty and freedom; surely the Torah could have thought of a different expression for either servitude or freedom? 

Perhaps the point is that we are given a choice as to which perspective we want to adopt when thinking about our national narrative. We could choose to focus on the poverty, the backbreaking labor and the humiliation, or we could choose to sing a shira chadasha, a new song that celebrated the ultimate joyous conclusion despite the existence of the initial dark chapters. 

This might be the answer to the well-known question posed by many Rishonim as to why the first mitzvah given after yetzias Mitzrayim is that of kiddush hachodesh, sanctification of the new moon. The ba'alei machshava highlight the exceptional nature of this mitzvah in that kiddush hachodesh reflects man’s ability to sanctify the moon, which in turn determines when bread becomes chametz, on which day we are subject to kares for not fasting on Yom Kippur, and a whole host of other critical halachos. According to the Kedushas Levi, the verse (Shemos 12:2) “rishon hu lachem” — it is a first for you — is essentially saying that Hashem, the “Rishon,” is given over to Bnei Yisroel through their ability to sanctify the moon. What a transformative mitzvah to begin the Jew’s sojourn through the desert! Bnei Yisroel had the choice to view themselves as slaves still dealing with the reverberations of hundreds of years of slavery, or they could view themselves as regal bnei melachim and as an am segulah, a treasured nation. Beginning the journey with the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh, and all that it implies about the grandeur of man, and specifically am Yisroel as a mamleches kohanim, allowed Bnei Yisroel to frame their experiences in a psychologically healthy and productive fashion. We are given a choice how to view yetzias Mitzrayim specifically, and Jewish history in its entirety. Do we experience our life through the prism of the downtrodden aniyus or through the perspective of geulah? 

In a real sense, many of us are enslaved by the narrative of our lives — how we look back on a difficult childhood, how we deal with suffering and with setbacks — and we frame our lives through the prism of that negative narrative. To some degree there is a certain spirit of cheirus that comes with choosing to write a positive script of our life. The goal is to be able to acknowledge and give voice to frustrations and even pain, and at the same time to genuinely feel that we have the capacity to transform every incident that has befallen or will befall us into opportunities for real growth and meaning. That is also a freedom of sorts. The matzah in its duality and complexity speaks of the entire process of national and personal redemption, and challenges us in our perception of our own life’s journey.


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