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The Last Days of Pesah

April 27, 2016

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

Many commentators on the Haggadah have pointed to the apparent contradictory symbolism of the matzah at the Seder table. On the one hand, we start the Maggid (telling of the story) section with referring to the matzah as hah lahma anya — this is the bread of affliction — symbolizing the bread that the Israelites ate in Egypt during their slavery. On the other hand, as we get to the end of the Maggid and we quote Rabban Gamliel’s famous explanations for the basic ritual items at the Seder, we observe that the matzah is the bread that the Children of Israel ate when they left Egypt in haste, thus making it a symbol of freedom and liberation from slavery.

Well, which is it? The simple answer is both. To distinguish between the dual symbolism, we point to a broken matzah as the lahma anya and to a whole matzah when we quote Rabban Gamliel’s explanation. But the question still remains — why use the same object for two diametrically opposed statuses (yes, this is an acceptable plural for “status”). Matzah is matzah! Surely other symbols could have been found that would be associated with slavery as opposed to freedom.

In a lecture I recently heard from Rabbi Eliyahu Soloveitchik of Lander’s College, he suggested that the use of the matzah to symbolize both of these statuses was designed to show that the Jewish people were still “slaves” when they left Egypt, but instead of being slaves to Pharaoh, they became slaves to the Almighty (ki avodai heim — Lev. 25:42). Of course, the difference is obvious. Being a slave to Pharaoh was demeaning and oppressive; being a slave to G-d is uplifting and liberating. We free ourselves of subjugation to physical pleasures and desires and embrace a spirituality that is lofty and sublime. To demonstrate that our status didn’t totally transform itself from slavery to utter freedom and do-whatever-you-please condition, we continue to make use of the matzah as a symbol of our new status — a slavery that is truly liberating.

But perhaps there is another way of resolving our conundrum — and that brings us to the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea that is traditionally associated with Shevi’i shel Pesah (the seventh day of Passover). As the Torah recounts, the newly-emancipated Israelites were perceived by the Egyptians as having gotten lost in the desert (see Ex. 13:17-14:14). That and the keenly-felt loss of their erstwhile slaves propelled Pharaoh and the Egyptians to take up pursuit of the Jewish nation and restore them to their former situation (or perhaps kill them in the process). When the Egyptians reached the Israelites, the former were caught between a rock and a hard place — the impassable Yam Suf (‘the Reed Sea”) in front of them and the pursuing Egyptians behind them. They cried out to Moses and were ready to give up and go back to Egypt. “Is there a lack of graves in Egypt that you have brought us here to the desert to die,” (Ex. 14:11) they complained to Moses.

This lack of faith in Moses and in G-d, despite the miracles that they beheld in Egypt, is an indication that the Jews were not yet truly free. As long as one still fears his master — or his former master — there is no real freedom from the slavery that he/she experienced. Yes, the Israelites were physically out of bondage and oppressive labor, but in their minds they still feared the power and might of their former enslavers. As long as that situation existed, the Jewish people were not truly free. Physical freedom must be accompanied by mental and psychological freedom. And it was not until the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea, when the Jews crossed to the other side and saw the Egyptian dead washed ashore, that their fear of their former masters evaporated and they were able to express full faith in G-d and Moses  (Ex. 14:31). That was when they became truly free.

Thus, the matzah that they ate after they left Egypt still represented an element of slavery. Yes, it symbolized a physical measure of freedom, but that freedom was still tinged with fear and trepidation — that their former situation could be foisted back upon them. They were still “slaves” to that fear and thus the matzah they ate after the Exodus was still symbolic of that slave mentality. It was only after they crossed the Sea and felt fully relieved of their fears that the matzah, the bread of affliction, was finished — and soon thereafter the manna from heaven became their true “bread of freedom.”

Hag Sa’meah and Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as the chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.