By Rabbi Adam Roffman
We tend to take it for granted that things in Judaism are the way they are for a reason, even if we don’t necessarily know or understand that reason ourselves. Nevertheless, I find that when it comes to deepening my relationship with my faith, asking myself, “Did it have to be this way?” is so often a useful exercise.
For so many of us, Passover is the Seder – the four questions, the silly Seder songs, the chance to convene our family and friends from near and far. And as far as ritual goes, the Seder is extremely effective in recreating the drama, the mystery, and the thrill of the exodus from Egypt. Our reenactment engages all five of our senses and our intellect and, at its best, is a terrific way of passing down our history and traditions to next generation of Jews.
But once the leaves are taken out of the dining room table and the Seder plate is put back in the display cabinet, what remains – spiritually and experientially – for the remainder of the holiday?
In essence, the Torah teaches us, one thing – matzah.
Passover, in the siddur, is referred to as chag hamatzot—the holiday of matzah. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, it’s the matzah that consumes us (no pun intended) in these last days of the holiday. Matzah (or rather, the lack of chametz) disrupts our lives in more ways than we probably can count. It doesn’t just change our eating routines, it changes our shopping routines, our lunch breaks, and even our social habits.
And yet, despite all our efforts to avoid chametz, we are constantly surrounded by it. It calls to us from the bagel case in the grocery store, it taunts us in TV commercials, and even on social media (ever see those step-by-step, easy-to-bake videos on Facebook? Last night I had to endure a particularly tempting French toast recipe).
For me, it’s this tension between knowing I can’t have something and being constantly surrounded by it that really drives my experience over these six days. It helps me define what freedom means in the context of our religion. Freedom is the ability to overcome my desire to eat whatever I want, whenever I want it. Freedom is realizing that I don’t need added sugar, preservatives, and empty calories to sustain my body and satisfy my appetite. Freedom is knowing that I have the discipline to resist the temptations that might distract me from the sacred responsibilities of being a parent, a husband, and a servant of God.
So, whether we tell ourselves that our chametz is not ours to eat because we sold it, or we imagine that it is dust, or in my case, we stare down at that French toast and convincingly declare that we can live without it, there is a powerful lesson in being satisfied with matzah for not just a couple of days, but an entire week.
As the Israelites learned very quickly after their departure from Egypt, freedom isn’t easy. Without self-control, discipline and a sacred purpose, freedom can defeat us and even enslave us. A week without chametz helps remind us that, with God’s help, we can not only earn our freedom, we can also sustain it.
Enjoy that matzah!
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share