Shabbat HaGadol

Hole-y Matzo! I am currently reading Taking the Stand, Alan Dershowitz’s account of his professional life as a Harvard Law Professor as  a, high profile attorney, and as an ardent defender of Israel.  Dershowitz was retained by Jim Bakker, the famous televangelist who had been convicted of fraud in relation to his ministry in 1989. The judge had given Jim Bakker a draconian 45 year sentence and fined him a half a million dollars for his crimes.  Dershowitz, hired for an appeal of the sentence, succeeded in getting the court to reduce that sentence to eight years.  Knowing that Alan Dershowitz had a large collection of Haggadahs, some beautifully illustrated and dating back hundreds of year, the Bakkers gave him a gift of a Christian Evangelical Haggadah in appreciation.  (For our guests tonight, the Haggadah is a kind of prayer book that tells the story of Passover, and is used at our Seders.) At the Dershowitz Passover Seder that year, Dershowitz, who loves practical jokes, had a friend and a guest read a chosen selection from that particular Haggadah. When it came to the part of the Haggadah where we explain the reasons that we eat the matzo on Passover, the friend, known for his dramatic and expressive voice, read from the Evangelical Haggadah: “This is the bread of affliction that the people of Israel had to eat when they fled from Egypt.” So far, so good”, writes Dershowitz. “But then, it went on to describe why matzo has small holes:” “The holes in the matzo represent the wound in the body of our Savior, who in his body was punctured during his crucifixion.” Now, there is a reason why the holes are in matzo, but that explanation is, I assure you, NOT in the traditional Haggadah and NOT part of a Jewish Seder.  We’ll come back to the reason the holes are there, at least from the Jewish perspective, later on.  This introduces the topic of tonight’s sermon—why DO we eat matzo, which is unleavened bread, on Passover?   I would like to highlight three reasons we eat matzo on Passover. The first you probably know. Matzo has to be made quickly – in under 18 minutes, to be precise, or else the dough will start to ferment and rise.    The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they had to leave quickly. In fact, they were literally driven out of Egypt by the Pharaoh following the plague of the “Death of the Firstborn”.  The Torah tells us that Pharaoh arises in the middle of the night to seek out Moses and Aaron and tell them leave. He can’t wait till morning and everybody is up!  It says in the Torah “Egypt imposed itself strongly upon the people to hasten to send them out of the land, for they said, “We are all dying!” (Exodus 12:33) We eat the matzo on Passover as a way to remember the hasty departure of our ancestor from Egypt. They left in such a hurry that they did not have time to let their bread rise. This is not the first time, however, we hear about matzo in our Torah. This introduces us to the second reason we eat Matzo on Passover.  You see, the Israelites ate matzo before they left Egypt as well. They are instructed in fact, to eat a meal of meat, matzo and bitter herbs on the night BEFORE they leave Egypt, BEFORE the plague of the firstborn and before they leave Egypt.  It is the very first Seder. Matzo is, in fact, poor man’s bread – lechem oni, in the Hebrew. Ha lachma anya –“this is the bread of affliction”, as we recite in Aramaic at the beginning of our Seder.  It is the bread that the Israelites ate the 240 years that they were enslaved in Egypt. A second reason we eat matzo is in remembrance of our ancestor’s enslavement, oppression and impoverishment. This is why Egg Matzo cannot be used at the Seder to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzo. The Talmud  calls egg matzo “the matzo of opulence” or “rich man’s matzo”. I suppose if you had enough money to have a chicken to give you an egg, you were not considered poor. Eating egg matzo would not be a proper way to remember poverty. It is also the reason why the Kairites, a Jewish sect, would only eat matzo made of barley, the grain that one feeds to animals. Eating this grain made into matzo, they feel, is the best way to remember. The third reason we eat Matzo is that it symbolizes purity. The process of leavening, i.e., the rising of the bread which happens when yeast is present, represents “corruption”, or “rot”. How is that so? The process of bread rising involves fermentation. Fermentation is the chemical decomposition of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other micro organisms.  In other words, fermentation is rot. That is, leavening technically, that is chemically, decomposes, that is, rots, the dough. In fact, our Torah teaches in Leviticus that no meal offering brought before G-d can contain leaven.  It cannot contain that which rots. Only pure offerings are suitable as a gift to G-d. Leavening, which makes dough rise, symbolically represents corruption, represents haughtiness, and represents pride and arrogance. It symbolizes everything that Pharaoh, who thought he was a god, stood for. Matzo reminds us of the humble status of our ancestors in Egypt, and the humility we should seek to cultivate in our daily lives.  The word matzo is related to the three letter root for “to squeeze” (mem-tsadi-hey) or “to struggle against” (nun-tsadi-hey). During Passover we make a special effort to squeeze out every corrupting influence in our lives. We struggle against arrogance and pride when we find it in ourselves. This is where the holes in the matzo come in. The holes are made in the dough to allow air bubbles to escape during the baking process. This prevents the dough from rising and swelling while it is in the oven. So, stay away from products with leavening, and keep yourself from having a rotten Passover. In fact, Shabbat Shalom and A Sweet and Kosher Pesach!