Friday, March 26, 2010

Chametz: The Bread of Freedom

This article appears in the Jewish Star

Parshat Tzav and Pesach

A child looks at the holiday table that always has a plump centerpiece with an ornate cover. The cover is lifted to reveal… three matzos. Bummer. Where is the bread?

The first of the four rhetorical statements in the Mah Nishtanah is, “Tonight we eat only matzo.” One can argue this observation is not motivated simply due to the innocent questions of a child. Rather, there is a real contradiction in that on the evening when we are supposed to be celebrating freedom, we are only eating poor man’s bread. (I think matzo is called poor man’s bread because once you’ve bought matzo made under the strictest conditions, you become a poor man who can’t afford bread anyway.)

Interestingly, there is only one korban (offering) in this week’s parsha that includes a series of breads. Usually the bread used for a korban is matzo. But in chapter 7, we find that the Korban Todah — the thanksgiving offering — includes real bread along with the matzo.

What is the significance of including bread in the offering?

According to Rashi, the reasons one would bring a Korban Todah are the same reasons one should nowadays say Birkat Hagomel (the blessing recited over personal miracles): being saved from the sea, crossing the desert, imprisonment, or a major health decline — all of these are alluded to in Psalms 107.

[A brief aside: Should one recite the blessing when traveling by plane across an ocean? The literalists argue: If you cross the ocean you say the blessing. The realists say the difficult part of the journey is trying to sleep while seated upright in a 1.5 cubic foot area. A plane crash is highly unlikely and physical needs are otherwise met. Surviving a car crash is a bigger personal miracle than stepping off an El-Al flight at Ben Gurion airport — especially if you travel business or first class.]

Following Rashi’s interpretation, it would be appropriate to bring the Korban Todah for events which would cause one to sponsor a Seudat Hoda’ah — (a meal of thanksgiving) for real moments when G-d deliberately intervened to save you.

At such a moment, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, “[Chametz] represents man in control of all that is his, with nothing to impede him. He was delivered from some difficulty that had inhibited his step. He emerged from dire straits and attained broad independence. This full independence… has no means of expression more fitting than ten chametz loaves… [Ten] is the quantitative expression of qualitative perfection.”

This is a beautiful concept. But Rabbi Hirsch is well aware that the 10 bread loaves are accompanied by thirty matzos. That is a ratio of three to one, matzo to chametz, an offering the individual is comfortable with, says Hirsch, due to how he understands and perceives his state of well-being.

“What appears as chametz from the standpoint of his position in the world appears to him as ‘matzo’ when he stands before G-d… only by G-d’s grace does he regain chametz — independence. Thus, as he regains worldly independence, his sense of dependence on G-d is renewed and he commits himself anew to dedicate his whole life and all his independent powers to the service of G-d. He brings matzo in the same measures in which he brings chametz, and only this law of matzo opposite chametz makes his offering a todah.” (The thirty matzos had the same amount of flour as the ten loaves of bread according to the list of ingredients from Parshat Emor and Korach and the Talmud Menachot 77-78).

Perhaps the first statement in Mah Nishtana is really a question. “We have all the trimmings of a Seudat Hoda’ah. We should really have matzo and bread. Why only matzo?”

And the answer is that we are celebrating a kind of freedom and independence that is not about our physical survival. “Had G-d not taken us out, we’d still be slaves,” we declare in the Haggadah. But we would have survived!

Chametz and matzo are brought together when we celebrate what might have otherwise been our death. But when we celebrate our complete dependence on G-d on the evening of the exodus from slavery, we are not yet at a point when chametz and matzo can be rejoined. Therefore only matzo has a role in the holiday, until complete independence is established at the splitting of the sea on the last day of the holiday. Only then can chametz be reintroduced to our diets, when we are completely free once the holiday comes to an end.

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