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Reprinted with permission of the author from
The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays
Just as shunning hametz [leaven] is the symbolic statement of leaving slavery behind, so is eating matzah the classic expression of entering freedom.
Matzah was the food the Israelites took with them on the Exodus. “They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes [matzot], for it was not leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared provisions for themselves” (Exodus 12:39). According to this passage, matzah is the hard bread that Jews initially ate in the desert because they plunged into liberty without delaying.
However, matzah carries a more complex message than “Freedom now!” Made only of flour and water–with no shortening, yeast, or enriching ingredients–matzah recreates the hard “bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3) and meager food given to the Hebrews in Egypt by their exploitative masters. Like the bitter herbs eaten at the seder, it represents the degradation and suffering of the Israelites.
Bread of Slavery, Bread of Freedom
Matzah is, therefore, both the bread of freedom and the erstwhile bread of slavery. It is not unusual for ex-slaves to invert the very symbols of slavery to express their rejection of the masters’ values. But there is a deeper meaning in the double-edged symbolism of matzah. It would have been easy to set up a stark dichotomy: matzah is the bread of the Exodus way, the bread of freedom; hametz is the bread eaten in the house of bondage, in Egypt. Or vice versa: matzah is the hard ration, slave food; hametz is the rich, soft food to which free people treat themselves. That either/or would be too simplistic. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread.
The halakha [Jewish law] underscores the identity of hametz and matzah with the legal requirement that matzah can be made only out of grains that can become hametz–that is, those grains that ferment if mixed with water and allowed to stand. How the human prepares the dough is what decides whether it becomes hametz or matzah. How you view the matzah is what decides whether it is the bread of liberty or of servitude.
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