Remembering What We Ate

There’s a story told about the late Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion during his 1954 trip to the US with to meet with President Eisenhower.  During the trip, Ben Gurion was confronted by Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles,  “Tell me, Mr. Prime Minister – Who do you and your country really represent: the Jews of Yemen, Poland, Romania, Morocco, Iraq, the Soviet Union or Brazil ? After 2000 years of exile, can you really speak of one nation, one culture, one legacy of Jewish tradition?”

Ben-Gurion replied,

“Mr. Secretary, some 200 years ago. the Mayflower set sail from England with the first settlers of the United States.  I challenge you to go out and find ten random North American kids and ask them the following questions: ‘What was the name captain of the ship? How long was the journey? What food did the people eat along the way? What was the condition of the sea?’  You will likely not receive very accurate answers”.

”Some 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people left Egypt. In your travels around the world, I would like you to find ten Jewish children from different countries and ask them the same questions:  When the Israelites left Egypt, what was the name captain of their ship? How long was the journey? What food did the people eat along the way? What was the condition of the sea?  When you have their answers….I want you to remember the question you asked me today…

No doubt that Ben Gurion was referring to the manna that Israelites ate for 40 years in the desert; on the night of the Exodus, too, we had special food – a menu that we relive each year on the Seder night.

Two of the three foods, the meat of the Korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice – and the bitter herbs, Maror, are highly symbolic – both for the generation of the Exodus as well as for the modern Jew: The Korban (which will be re-instituted with the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash) reminds us of the miracles G-d wrought against the Egyptians and their gods: Roasting the lamb whole is an eternal act of defiance against immoral, idolatrous cultures.  Maror is a powerful symbol of the bitterness of the Egyptian servitude and the sweetness of physical and spiritual freedom.

But the Matzah, the unleavened bread, seems to have its origins in the hurried night of the Exodus. Shemot Ch. 12:

לט  וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת-הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, עֻגֹת מַצּוֹת–כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ:  כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ, וְגַם-צֵדָה, לֹא-עָשׂוּ לָהֶם.


 39 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any provisions.

It seems from this pasuk that if the Jews had simply read the book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Fleeing Nations” – they would not have to have settled for Matzah – and the whole Kosher for Passover food industry would never have gotten off the ground.  The search for, and burning of Chametz would simply never have occurred!

We know, of course that this is not the case, since G-d commanded the Israelites on the first of Nissan, two weeks before the exodus, to rid themselves of Hametz and to eat only matzah for an entire week:

טו  שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ–אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל–מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.

 Seven days you should eat unleavened bread; but the first day you should rid yourselves of leaven, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel

Matzah is also a key ingredient in the evening’s feast – as an earlier verse in the twelfth chapter says:

ח  וְאָכְלוּ אֶת-הַבָּשָׂר, בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה:  צְלִי-אֵשׁ וּמַצּוֹת, עַל-מְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ.

 And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it


In other words, the obligation to eat matzah and avoid Hametz is not merely a product of the hurried departure from Egypt: It is what we call לכתחילה – an a priori mitzvah.

What is the depth of the symbolism of Matzah? What relevance did it have for the generation that left Mizraim – and what is it supposed to mean for us today? 

I saw a wonderful article by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner. He notes that a central theme of Sefer Bereshit is distrust.  In our nation’s formative years, a healthy mistrust was an essential component of our forefather’s approach:

The forebears of the Jewish people lacked unity, and lacked a sense of obedience to a ruler; this deficiency was planned, a trait vital for their break from Mesopotamian and Canaanite society. Had Avraham felt too strong a bond to his family and surroundings, he would never have been able to leave his land and challenge the ideals with which he had been raised. Had Yitzchak and Yaakov felt attached to their neighbors, the earliest seeds of the Jewish people would have been absorbed into the tribes among whom they lived.

Even once Ya’akov had fathered a family that would be the nucleus of our people, brothers did not trust each other: Joseph is sold into slavery, the portal to the excruciatingly long Egyptian exile.

When Moshe attempts to intervene in an internal Jewish dispute at the start of Sefer Shemot, he is rebuked by those who he is trying to educate,

“Do you plan to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

Moshe’s response?

אכן נודע הדבר

Truly, the matter is known

Rashi, following the Midrash Rabba, offers both a plain and midrashic meaning:  On the surface, Moshe flees for his life because his adoptive grandfather, Pharoah, has realized that Moshe is the Jewish leader the despot so desperately tried to identify and neutralize. On a deeper level, Moshe is declaring, “Now that I realize that one of my brothers has ‘leaked’ to the authorities that I am a Hebrew, I understand why the Jewish people, of all the nations, are immersed in such a bitter servitude.”

Rabbi Torczyner:

But the rebellion of those early years was not appropriate for building an enduring nation, and so HaShem brought the Jews to Egypt and burdened them with slavery, that they might learn to accept a master. The social strife of their national gestation would not serve creation of a landed society, and so HaShem immersed the Jewish people into a cauldron of suffering, so that brothers would be born in times of trouble.

“A nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete economically, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural
characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society.”  (The Economics of Trust – National Review, 1995)

On the eve of the Exodus, we savored the taste of Matzah, of nationhood. In Rabbi Torczyner’s words,

In creating matzah, we combine two representatives of division, flour and water:

• Flour, with its lightweight granules, is the epitome of division – it blows with the wind
and scatters in every direction.
• Water flows freely and apart, and so demonstrates division of its own….When we combine the divided flour and water, we create a material that coheres and forms a dense unit. Wait too long and the dough will inflate outward and become chametz, but bake it immediately and you have a clear representative of the unity the Jewish people required. This message was crucial for the Jews who would leave Mitzrayim.

Trust, an essential component of unity, has a central role in the halachic system.  The concern of “Marit Ayin” requires me to avoid doing an otherwise permissible activity in a manner that would arouse suspicion of my commitment to Torah. That said, an observer must, as much as possible, give another the benefit of the doubt – הוי דן את כל אדם לכף זכות…..

Rabbi Menashe Klein understands the verse ונמצא שכל טוב בעיני אלקים ואדם – and you shall find grace in the eyes of G-d and man – as bidding the Jew to help foster a more trusting society.  There are many halachot enacted “Mipnei Darchei Shalom” – to cultivate a peaceful, trusting society.

Right before Pesach, I was leaving the parking lot of a major department store, and saw a homeless woman begging at the exit of the lot. I handed her a few dollars.

When she wished me a “Happy Easter” , I informed her that we celebrate Passover, to which she answered,

“Then have a great Good Friday!”

“We have our Sabbath Friday night.  We’re Jewish.  I’m a rabbi.”

Now, I am not relaying this story to illustrate what a Tzaddik I am to give charity to a homeless person, but as an example of what we might think of focusing on מפני דרכי שלום – to cultivate a peaceful, trusting society.

Ben Gurion was right:  We know who the captain of our ship was, and what we ate along the way.  But each year, we also recall what we ate on the eve of our journey.  While eating, we reflect on what it meant to us then – and what it continues to mean to us as a nation.

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