Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Appreciating the "Broken" Afikoman

A Pesach Thought - On Seeing Depth in People

by Rabbi Avi Billet

There are differences of opinion as to the origin of the word Afikoman – the most common suggestion I've seen is that it is a Greek term – and, as far as its translation goes, while it is not entirely clear, it is largely considered to mean "dessert."

There are a number of opinions amongst the Rishonim as to what purpose the Afikoman serves. Some consider it the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah to eat matzah (despite whatever earlier eatings took place). Others view it as a commemoration of the Korban Pesach – eating a specifically designated "dessert" in place of the meat of the sacrifice we no longer offer because there is no Temple in Jerusalem

Why do we make such a big deal about the specific piece of matzah that we use for the Afikoman? Why do parents fall for the negotiation for this piece of matzah meal (because that is what it is after it's been folded and hidden inside a pillow) when surely a fresh piece of matzah would be much more desirable to those sitting around the table?

Because when something is set aside for a mitzvah, it achieves its own unique identity, and in some cases a level of holiness, which cannot be replaced by something else. 

In a homiletical sense, perhaps the Afikoman carries with it a deep and profound message we all know, but need to be reminded of every now and then. 

The Afikoman might be a broken matzah, but it's the best broken piece of matzah you'll ever eat because of the added significance it carries. Even if though it may be a little unsightly, we look past it's imperfections and its seeming limitations, and we look forward to its taste, which we'll carry in our mouths until we go to sleep. We appreciate the mitzvah it helps us fulfill.

How could a broken and seemingly worthless piece of matzah serve that function?

Because not everything that looks broken is automatically broken or in need of repair. My baby cries when a cookie breaks – even if I give him both parts of the cookie. He doesn't understand that both parts of the cookie are the same cookie and that as soon as he takes one bite, he'll have left what is currently "broken" in his hand. 

The Afikoman is not broken! It is meant to be this way. It is our way of saving the best for last. Its imperfection is what makes it real. This piece was part of a whole, and we've been anticipating this piece and looking forward to this piece, and no other piece could ever take its place. 

When we think about this concept with respect to those we love, we understand how people refuse to let go or give up on family members who have physically changed on account of illness or aging. They may not look like they once did, but we know them very well. They are not broken. Any physical imperfections are what make them real. 

In a way, the value attached to the Afikoman is a reminder of how anything that may seem on the surface to be dull or inconsequential is only that way to those of us who don't scratch past the surface or who don't seek to uncover the depth or beauty of what lies beneath. 

To bring the parable full circle, I share a passage from the children's book "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams.
"The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces...
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room.
"Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit."Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
Have a wonderful Pesach, enjoying all the company that spend time together through the holiday.

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