What Seder table would be complete without the thin, crispy, cracker-like unleavened bread known as matzah? Strange that the Torah would choose such a lackluster food item as the symbol for a miraculous deliverance from slavery. It could have chosen a symbol that illustrates power, or even a food with greater character. Yet this simple unleavened bread somehow expresses the nature of the Jewish people as they became a free nation. How?
Additionally, we call matzah lechem oni, usually translated as “bread of affliction.” What does celebrating redemption have to do with eating something called “affliction”?!
With these questions in mind, Maharal of Prague, in one of his seminal works, Gevurot Hashem, offers us a deeper look into that hard bread on the Seder table, and how it contains the essential message of Jewish identity.
For seven days you shall not eat leaven. Eat matzah [in Hebrew, lechem oni], because in haste [b’chipazon] you left Egypt. (Deut. 16:3)
Matzah is called lechem oni, because it is the opposite of enriched matzah [what we know as egg matzah] with its added oils or honey . . . since the oni [Hebrew for “poor person”] has no money; he has only himself.
First, Maharal provides us with a new, creative definition of lechem oni. Instead of “bread of affliction,” he understands it as “simple bread.” Matzah has no additives, no preservatives, no added sweeteners; it is just flour and water. The word oni, literally “poor man,” is likened to this kind of bread, since the impoverished person also has nothing except for the absolute basics.
The poor person’s lack of possessions allows him a type of freedom from the burden of the physical world . . .
From this perspective, the poor person’s lack of possessions allows him a type of freedom from the burden of the physical world. True, his independence comes at a price that few of us would be willing to pay; still, conceptually he represents autonomy, and stands in stark contrast to the slave, who is completely tied to the will of his master.
Therefore, G‑d commanded us to eat this lechem oni, what we call matzah, on the night we left Egypt, and every subsequent year after. Just as matzah contains only essential items, and is not weighed down by extra ingredients, so too with the nation of Israel: on the night of redemption, Israel was released from the chains of bondage and entered a level of existence beyond the demands of Egypt.
Time is also an essential factor in understanding the Exodus . . .
Besides lacking extra ingredients, an important element of matzah is that it also lacks time. The entire process of making a piece of matzah cannot go beyond eighteen minutes. For Maharal, time is also an essential factor in understanding the Exodus.
And from this you can understand why the Redemption had to occur particularly in the first month [Nissan]: because redemption can come only from that which is separate and that which stands by itself . . . the first month has no connection in time [to any other month], since it is the first.
Above, we spoke about the relationship to others in the realm of space; here Maharal is illustrating the same point in the realm of time. In the realm of time, that which is first is the paradigm for all that follows it. The second and third months are always in relation to the first month. Their whole identity is completely based on where they exist in relation to the first month. But the first month has no relation to what is before or after; it is simply first.
Therefore, the redemption had to occur during the month of Nissan, the first month. Just as simple bread expresses independence within space, Nissan, the first month, represents independence in time. Amazingly, our redemption was a moment of freedom expressed throughout existence.
Therefore it is fitting that the redemption should occur without any passage of time . . .
We left Egypt in a moment outside of time . . .
The passage from Deuteronomy with which Maharal began his teaching tells us clearly that there is an essential relationship between the eating of matzah and coming out “in haste.” But, according to Maharal, it doesn’t mean that we left in a hurry, like someone late for work, running out the door with his briefcase flopping open. We left Egypt in a moment outside of time—a non-moment moment. In our miraculous redemption, we were lifted out of the constraints of time and space. We were carried out of Egypt with complete independence in all facets of physical reality, and miraculously entered the world stage as G‑d’s chosen nation.
That magical moment of redemption made an indelible mark that is intrinsically ingrained in our identity. Simply look through the pages of history, and see how we defy all the rules. No nation maintains its identity in a state of exile, as we have. No nation had the gall, after two thousand years of exile, to return home, pick up the pieces and rebuild a country on the ashes of the Holocaust. In our very nature we are a people of miracles; we defy the laws of history and nature. And, come Nissan, sitting at the middle of our Seder table on the first night of Passover is the matzah, the simple bread that illustrates the concept of freedom and points us towards our true identity as the people of miracles.
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