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Chol HaMoed – Matzah Tastes Different this Year

06/28/2024 02:21:40 PM

Jun28

Rabbi Nat Ezray

Chol HaMoed – Matzah Tastes Different this Year

Matzah and Passover have felt different this year.  Their meanings resonate in ways I had not experienced in the past. The themes of the Seder and the symbolism of matzah are so real! As our Bar Mitzvah Noah shared, matzah has multiple meanings and each one speaks to our moment: As we say “We are slaves,” we think of the pain of hostages remaining in captivity; as we say “In every generation there are those who rise up against us,” we think of spiraling antisemitism, especially on campuses.  And there are so many more connections between Passover and this moment. We can taste the different meanings of matzah.  Let’s look today at some of those meanings so that we can allow the ongoing taste of matzah to move us to action.  

When we began studying and looked at the designation of this holiday in this morning’s portion as Chag Ha’Matzot, I asked Noah what matzah symbolizes.  He gave the answer that most people would give.  Matzah symbolizes leaving Egypt swiftly, before the bread had time to rise, and that answer is true.  When we eat matzah, we think about the courage to leap into liberty without delaying.  Noah feels that deeply in his family escaping the Soviet Union to the freedom of this country. 

And there is another meaning of matzah in the Torah and the Haggadah.  It is lechem oni, the bread of affliction. The bland food that tastes a bit like cardboard is meant to taste that way.  Made of only flour and water – no shortening, yeast or enriching ingredients – we are meant to taste the meager food given to the Hebrews in Egypt by their cruel taskmasters.  We literally ingest the suffering of our people, and taste and experience what the slaves ate.  Matzah is both the bread of freedom and the bread of slavery.  The Seder takes us on a journey from the bread of affliction, which is how Matzah is explained at the beginning of the Seder, to the bread of freedom, which is how Matzah is explained later in the Seder. 

This year, we taste the bread of affliction in real ways. Watching the hatred and antisemitism erupting on college campuses has been gut-wrenching.  The word Egypt in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, means narrowness and constriction. There is a visceral sense of constriction this year as we witness a culture of hatred, rejection of Israel’s right to exist, and justification of murder and rape, to which our children have been exposed. The images coming from some of our college campuses are heartbreaking and unfathomable.  It is different than protesting Israel’s policies or demanding care for Palestinians; those are important. But this is not protest.  It is hatred. Students have been threatened.  They have been told, “Go back to Poland.” Intimidation, harassment, and isolation have become the new normal. Noa Fay, a Columbia University student, said: “My peers, my friends, and my family are afraid. I cannot walk around my own campus looking visibly Jewish without preparing myself for the possibility that someone might spit on or attack me... I am furious that I now go to school in a police state.”

There was an article in The Atlantic yesterday, where the Dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, Erwin Chemerinsky described protesters coming to his home where he was hosting dinner for graduating students. One student interrupted the dinner and began screaming into a microphone. Erwin and his wife said, “You are a guest in our home.  Please leave.”  This is private property! They hosted another dinner and protestors stood on the street chanting loudly and at times offensively.  For days, they received death threats.  There was an organized e-mail campaign demanding the school fire him and his wife.  Terrible posters with racist caricatures were put up about him.  It made him realize how antisemitism is not taken seriously.  He writes: “If a student group had put up posters that included a racist caricature of a black dean or played on hateful tropes about Asian American or LGBTQ people, the school would have erupted, and understandably so.  But a plainly antisemitic poster received just a handful of complaints from Jewish staff and students.”  It is hate. It is antisemitism. And sadly, it is everywhere.   

Weave that in with the reality that Israelis remain in captivity in Gaza.  The ‘bread of affliction’ is real and we taste it.  One of the Haggadahs I used to prepare for Seder this year included commentary by the hostages’ families.  Listen to the selection written by Jonathan Polin and Rachel Goldberg, parents of Hersch Goldberg-Polin, age 26, taken hostage on October 7: “Normally, we ask four questions at the Seder. This year, we must shout a fifth: ‘Why are our loved ones not sitting at the table with us?’”  Rachel especially has been an advocate for the hostages, meeting with dozens of world leaders, including President Biden.  She has addressed the UN and had an audience with the Pope.  She was named to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and asks us to remember the hostages who remain enslaved. As I think of those people and the conditions in which they are held against their will, matzah’s symbol as the bread of affliction is so real. It is why the matzah tastes different this year.

I don’t if you are aware, but just this week a video of Hersch emerged.  He’s alive, at least he was when the video was taken.  To see him brought relief and hope and at the same time shook us up.  We felt frustration and anger.  You could see how his condition had deteriorated and hear how his voice wavered.  As he told his family that he misses them and loves them, our hearts broke.  He needs to come home.  There is a renewed sense of determination to do something.  The lechem oni drives home the pain and need to act. But what do we do?

I turn to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory at moments like this for wisdom and guidance.  Rabbi Sacks taught that the paragraph connected to the statement ha lachma anya – behold this bread of affliction is followed by an invitation for others to join us in eating it.  Why share the bread of affliction? His answer is that shared suffering is the beginning of liberation. He brought a story from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.  Levi describes that the worst of his experiences came at the end of the war when the Nazis abandoned the concentration camp in the face of the Russian advance.  All prisoners who could walk were taken on a brutal march and they left behind those too infirm to move.  Primo Levi was one of the people left behind.  He describes that for ten days they were left alone with only scraps of food and fuel.  He and two others worked to build a fire and bring some warmth to his fellow prisoners, many of whom were dying of starvation and illness.  He writes: “When the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment Towarowski (a 23 year old Franco-Pole) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to the three who worked to make the fire.  And so it was agreed.”  Levi recounts that “only a day before this would have been inconceivable.  The law of the camp said: Eat your own bread and if you can, that of your neighbor.  To do otherwise would have been suicidal.  The offer of sharing bread 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 not died slowly changed from prisoners to men again.” Shared suffering is the beginning of liberation.

What does it mean to share suffering?  Hold onto the stories of the hostages.  Wear necklaces and ribbons. Leave empty chairs. Reach out. Upon being named to Time Magazines list, Rachel Goldberg- Polin said: “I pray this platform will help compel the world not to forsake these remaining 133 souls, who hail from 25 countries, 5 religions and range in age from 15 months to 86 years old….We must not turn a blind eye to the suffering of these human beings, along with the suffering of all innocents in Gaza.”  Lift up the hostages. Keep their stories front and center.  Somehow, they have been forgotten amidst hateful protest.  Don’t allow that to happen. Shared suffering is the beginning of liberation.

To share in suffering means seeing people where they are at, reaching out to those who are alone or in need.  Check in with college students and those who work at universities.  Write Erwin Chemerinsky a note. Receiving support has encouraged and strengthened him. Ask students what they need.  Remember that different students need different things and experience this moment in different ways. Share stories of how we have made it through difficult times and remind them to be proud of being Jewish.  Let them know how loved they are. 

Sharing suffering leads to activism. That allows the bread of affliction to transform to the bread of freedom.  Give to organizations that make a difference.  This year Mimi and I donated to Second Harvest, World Central Kitchen, Kibbutz Kisufim, JNF and the ADL before the Seder.   Be politically engaged. Demand that universities protect our students. There is much we can do.

Have no illusion about things rapidly changing.  Freedom requires patience, fortitude, and action.  Hold onto the many people who live with resilience and respond with courage. Hold onto hope and allow matzah to symbolize hope. In the Haggadah I mentioned earlier, with comments by hostage families, Jonathan Polin and Rachel Goldberg write: “When thinking back to last Passover, to our last Seder, it is unfathomable to imagine that we would be where we are now as a family, as a nation, or as a people. But Hope is Mandatory.  That is what it is to be part of the Jewish nation. We are a people who will never give up.  We will keep going until we are free, all of us, in body and soul.  Share in the troubles.  May the Passover aspiration of l’shana ha’ba’a bnei chorim – next year may we be free people, be truer than ever for all of our loved ones.  Amen.” In the coming days, let your matzah taste like hope.  Shabbat Shalom. Moadim L’simcha.

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784