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Taste the Matzah of Pain

Most people think that the purpose of Jewish rituals, most especially those performed when we gather around our seder tables, is to make us more Jewish. While this is true, their spiritual goals reach far beyond our Jewish identities. They serve to raise awareness in our hearts.

Rabbi Shai Held comments: “Jewish spirituality begins in two places. One is a place of gratitude, and one is a place of protest. The challenge is to be capacious enough to hold gratitude for life, along with an equally deep sense that the world-as-it-is is not how it is supposed to be.”

The seders we are about to celebrate encapsulate this teaching. On the one hand, they are replete with symbols reminding us that we are free. We drink wine, recline, and eat far too much food to instill sentiments of joy and gratitude in our hearts. We are free!. At the very same occasion, and at the very same moment, we remind ourselves that we were once slaves by eating matzah, maror and charoset. We are commanded to taste bitterness and suffering.

Scholars suggest that slaves and poor laborers were fed matzah not only because it is cheap but because it is filling and as we quickly discover, requires a long digestion period. Matzah is designed by the oppressors to exploit the enslaved. Matzah is the rations of a slave.

Every day we are to taste—and thereby try to feel—what it must be like to be a slave. Of course, our matzah does not come close to the real experience of suffering and slavery, but this is what this symbol is designed to do.

Sometimes I wonder if our feasting overwhelms the matzah’s essential purpose. We butter up the matzah sometimes quite literally and other times repackage it as soup-soaked matzah balls. We lather it with lots and lots of eggs and turn it into matzah brie. We do all manner of things to transform the slave bread into a treat befitting a feast and celebration.

And I worry that in these delicious transformations we undermine the matzah’s simple, but powerful, message. Those measly pieces of bread, draped in decorative cloth, and arranged as a prominent centerpiece on our tables are meant to yank us out of our enjoyment if even but for a moment and shout, “Try and remember what it must be like not to be free. Try to taste what it must feel like to be cast aside, scorned, and treated like a slave.”

Too often we fail to take its import to heart. We relish in the freedom and don’t taste the slavery. We fret about supply chain delays and inflation while Ukrainian farmers are murdered, their fields decimated and their crops unplanted. The world’s breadbasket languishes. Soon people in India and Africa will be unable to find bread and millions will go hungry. Can we taste this matzah? Can we take to heart this suffering and pain?

Can we taste that our world is a slave to hunger and starvation? Protest the world is not yet what is supposed to be.

We force ourselves to eat matzah for eight days so that we can know what it feels like to be a slave, to be a person who cannot choose what to eat but must eat something that we will never win any Michelin stars but is simply filling. Matzah is satisfying only in the basic sense.

Let the matzah inspire our hearts to feel the world’s pain. Allow its taste to linger in our mouths. Let the matzah protest the world’s plight.

Of course, we should be grateful for the meal. We should enjoy the feast and the blessings of family and friends gathered around the table. But let us not allow the seder feast to lull us into complacency. It was not so long ago that this matzah was our meal. Something like this cracker still constitutes a meal for far too many. While we may be free now, while we may be privileged to feast at this very moment, there are countless millions who are not yet free, who are enslaved by oppressors or enslaved by hunger and poverty.

Let this matzah’s unappetizing dryness stick to the roof of our mouths and yank us out of our complacency. Enjoy the meal. Relish in family and friends, but never forget what slavery tastes like. Far too many people are still tasting it.

Ha lachma anya! This is the bread of affliction. Let all who are hungry come and eat!