The Passover holiday celebrates the liberation from slavery and the aspiration towards freedom. At first glance, there are so many messages, customs, icons, symbols, and peculiar rules, that one could easily get the impression that the holiday is a reflection of the cultural history of the Jewish people and nothing more. I remember hearing a joke once that claimed that all Jewish holidays are different versions of this simple message: ‘The Jews get into trouble, and the situation looks hopeless. God delivers them from the threat of annihilation. Okay, let’s eat’.
a sculpture of Jerusalem made of matzas, the unleavened bread.
The primary symbol of Passover is the matzah, the unleavened bread that our forefathers ate when they left Egypt. Bread is the symbol of food in our culture. When we sit down to a dinner, we make a blessing over the bread, and that covers all the blessings until our grace after meals. The word bread is often used to mean food. There is something very special about bread. We prepare the dough, and then let it sit. Whether we use prepared yeast or a starter dough that already contains yeast, or just leave the dough out in a warm environment, it is the process of the yeast slowly turning sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol which makes the dough airy and causes it to rise. Eventually we get a tasty bread which is light to the palate, and easy to digest. But it is not just the work of man. It depends on invisible agents that enable the preparation of the bread. It is an example of faith in what one cannot see. The yeast themselves are produced in cultures, and bread too is seen as a sign of culture, reflecting the culture of the people who make each particular type of bread.
When the Israelites were told to get ready for the exodus, the preparations included matzas, which were unleavened bread, for sandwiches along the way. The matzah were more concentrated than bread, did not spoil as easily, and did not take much time to make. They were also less tasty.
We all know the desire to prepare the future when we’re about to leave a job, or our parents home, or any safe nest that we may have. It may be very interesting to study the process in which these early Israelites turned from invited guests who were welcomed to make their home in the choicest neighborhoods of Egypt, and gradually lost their initial advantage and were turned into slaves. But that is a subject too complex to study here. Let me just say, that there are certain parallel aspects to enslavement that can be seen on a personal level, on a social level, and in the use of narcotics. And in this archetypical story, we are told that we have to cut the ties, and leave light. Take a simple sandwich with you, and know that you will long for the good things at home, but freedom is greater than all that.
The bible tells us that the Israelites were homesick for the watermelons that they loved in Egypt, and the cucumbers, and the meat. But in the process of their liberation, they were forced to give up old habits, and they chose to prepare a social system which had a foundation of justice, social services, and community responsibility for the weak and the poor.