Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides: Bread of Affliction or Bread of Freedom – the nature of Matzah

Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides

By Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides

Honey of My Failures

Last night, as I was sleeping,

I dreamt – marvelous error!

That I had a beehive here inside my heart

And the golden bees were making white combs

And sweet honey

From my old failures.

– Antonio Machado

(Calgary) – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, spoke of one of the mysteries of the Haggadah during one of his last live recordings before he passed away. He mentioned how curious it is that in the Haggadah, Matzah is referred to in two different ways.  Firstly, it is mentioned as Ha Lachma Anya – the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  But later in the Seder, when we are to discuss the four main symbols of Passover, we read differently. Rabbi Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin (rabbinical court) near of the end of the Second Temple Period (first century CE), said the Matzah represents the hurried Exodus from Egypt wherein the Israelites left so quickly that their dough did not have time to rise. So, far from being the bread of affliction, it is instead the bread of Freedom; Matzah is the bread that our ancestors ate on the way to redemption.

So, which is it?  The bread of affliction or freedom?

To illustrate a possible answer to this supposed paradox, Rabbi Sacks refers to the inestimable Primo Levi and his seminal book about surviving Auschwitz, “If This is a Man”. Levi remembers the final days in Auschwitz very vividly: “The worst time was the 10 days between when the Germans left and liberation – the patients in the hospital were the only ones left behind. 10 days of no food, no heat…Eventually two friends and I decided to light a fire.  As the heat began to spread, something seemed to relax in everyone. In that moment a young man of Polish descent proposed to the others in the hospital that they all contribute a piece of bread to each of the fire builders. This was astonishing! One day before, a similar event would have been inconceivable; the law of the camp said ‘eat your own bread, and if you can, eat the bread of your neighbor’.  It left no room for gratitude. It really meant, when he offered me some bread, that the law of the camp was dead.  It was the first human gesture that occurred among us.  I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had been dying slowly, changed from prisoners to human being again.”

How does this poignant story speak to the dual nature of Matzah on Pesach? Because it demonstrates a scenario in which tremendous, heart-breaking, and evil affliction may break down and transform, slowly over time, into freedom.

When we are commanded each year to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, the lesson here, always, is humility and compassion. No matter how far we fly and prosper, we are brought down to earth with a bump every spring – we may be free now, but we were slaves: Remember how fragile that freedom can be. As we are seeing with the tragic war and the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, freedom is not free. It can be taken away at any moment. It must be protected and cherished – we must be on-guard and vigilant. Affliction may become freedom, but it just as easily can become affliction again.

The above poem by the extraordinary Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, speaks to how our vulnerabilities, the mistakes we make, the things that we do of which we are ashamed, are ironically the things that make us more worthy of love, more compassionate, more human. In the same way that freedom cannot be understood or appreciated without affliction, true sweetness cannot exist unless there has been sadness and distress. Our tradition understands and teaches us that suffering can sometimes bring us together.

So, back to the Matzah – which is it?  The bread of affliction or the bread of freedom? It depends on what we do with it.  If we keep ourselves self-absorbed, thoughtless, and closed off in the narrow places of Mitzrayim (the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means narrow space) then it is, indeed, the bread of affliction.  But if we open up our hearts and minds, practice the kindness and compassion of our tradition, and lend others a helping hand, then the redemption story begins to ring true. As we look past our own needs and reach out to others to ensure their freedom, their health, their security and happiness, that is where our freedom really begins.

Rabbi Sacks teaches us: When we share what little we have, even if it’s of our difficulty, with others, we turn the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom: Affliction, shared, is the beginning of redemption.

From my family to yours, Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach

Rabbi Ilana is Calgary’s Jewish community chaplain and a non-denominational full-service Rabbi. She can be reached at RockyMountainRabbi.com.


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