By Harriet P. Gross
It’s time to think about matzah — I mean, really think about it. What it stands for.
We don’t have to think too hard, because Yehiel Poupko wrote all about this at Pesach five years ago. I’ve saved his words; they’re just as important for Pesach now.
Full disclosure first: I grew up in the shul of Bernard Poupko, an important, dynastic rabbi in the Orthodox tradition. Yehiel is one of his sons. I remember him as a very little boy, on the bimah, davening with his father. Of course he’s a rabbi, too, now — in Chicago, the last time I looked. Which was where and when I found his Passover message, called “Matzah: The Seder’s Sacred Messenger.” In it, he says that it’s “the matzah and the matzah alone over which the whole narrative is recited. Matzah is bread animated with memory….”
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko calls the seder “the most complex and detailed of Jewish rituals. A variety of texts have to be recited, chanted, studied, prayed. In their midst, a variety of foods — properly prepared — must be taught, presented, and eaten at the right moments, with understanding and purpose.” But the matzah, like the cheese in the famous nursery song, stands alone. The theme of the Haggadah, which guides us, is matzah.
To begin our seder, we bless the matzah. Then we break it, and put aside a piece to end our seder with. The story of Passover is recited in the presence of this broken bread. And why must we break it? Yehiel says, “Matzah really is poor bread, just flour and water, quickly kneaded by the poorest of the poor and baked on a hot rock in the desert sun of the Middle East. And the Talmud says it must be eaten as a poor person eats poor bread — never a whole loaf, but scraps and bits and crumbs.
“This was the poor bread that our ancestors ate while enslaved in Egypt: the bread of slavery itself.” So we break it to summon up the memory of poverty and torment. Yet it’s also the bread of faith, since those ancestors ate it before Sinai, before they had the Torah, when they left Mitzrayim with not much more than faith in God.
You see, that quick escape wasn’t the first time our people ate matzah! From Yehiel, I’ve learned that Moses told his people 14 days in advance about the 10th plague, and what they must eat that night: lamb broiled over an open fire, bitter herbs — and matzah. Why matzah, when they had ample time to make dough and let it rise? Because that first Passover, observed in homes rather than a place of worship, made each family’s table an altar.
“Because on the shared table of God and Israel,” Yehiel says, “everything must be pure. Leavening is not pure. The night of the first Passover meal, we were eating the only sacrificial meal found in the Torah that takes place outside a sanctuary. A sacred meal demands pure foods. Matzah is pure bread, just flour and water. Elemental.
“On that night, back in the land when and where we were still slaves, we became free by asserting that every home is a temple, every table an altar, every meal a sacrifice, every Jew a priest.”
This is a heavy matter to contemplate. But Yehiel offers us something much lighter to consider as well. Our seder culminates with the eating of the afikomen, the poor bread that has been waiting for us throughout, so that the last taste on our lips at the end of this special meal will be the taste of matzah.
If the children are sleepy, the Talmud says they may play “catch” to stay awake. With the matzah! The very first Frisbee! “This is actually the only time we permit this possibly less than fully respectful kind of fun to take place with bread, the staff of life,” Yehiel says.
So we begin the seder by tasting broken bits of matzah, and end it by eating the afikomen. The same matzah. But we have been transformed, at our table altars, from slaves into free men and women, just as our ancestors were. And that matzah has been transformed as well, from the poor bread of torment to the bread of faith.
The little boy I knew years ago has taught me to think deeply about matzah. Please join me! May Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s wisdom enrich Passover for all of us this year.