Skip to content

Parashat 04/20/2011

Pesach 5771

by Robert Rabinoff

Pesach is the holiday of matzot, bread that must be mixed, kneaded and baked completely within 18 minutes so that there is absolutely no time for any possible leavening to take place.  It would seem that it would be easier and less stressful simply to make it out of something like rice flour, which can’t, by its nature, ever become leavened.  It would be easier, but unfortunately it wouldn’t be kosher matzah.  All matzah must be made with flour that has the possibility of becoming leavened.  As much as Jews are known for enjoying Chinese cuisine, rice matzah is not kosher for the Seder. (Ashkenazic Jews, who are forbidden from eating non-chametz grains and legumes [kitniyot], cannot have rice at all over Passover.  Sephardic Jews, who may eat kitniyot, could theoretically have rice matzah I think, since it isn’t leavened, but not for the Seder.)


There is a similar situation in the laws of offerings.  If a kohen brings an offering with the intention of eating its meat or offering its sacrificial parts after their times of permissibility, the offering is rendered piggul (rejected) and anyone who does eat the meat of that offering is subject to the severe penalty of karet (spiritual excision).  However the offering is only rendered piggul if all the rest of the procedures (slaughtering the animal, receiving its blood in a service vessel, carrying the blood to the Altar and throwing the blood on the Altar) are carried out properly.  If there is any other invalidation along with the improper thought, the offering is still invalid and the meat may not be consumed, but the penalty for doing so is much less severe.  Like the matzah, only something that can “fall” from the status of piggul can “rise” to the status of piggul.


What is the lesson Torah is teaching us?  Matzah is of course symbolic of our freedom from Egyptian bondage.  Perhaps one lesson we can draw from the requirement that the matzah dough have the potentiality of becoming chametz is that if we want to be free, we must be prepared to take risks for that freedom.  On a very obviously level, we see our Arab cousins all across North Africa and into the Persian Gulf finally taking to the streets, risking gunfire and airstrikes, standing up to secret police and other dictators’ goon squads, all in the name of freedom.  In our own case, when Israel declared independence in 1948 there were all of 600,000 poorly armed Jews in the Land, who were promptly attacked by 4 Arab armies – yet we forged ahead and founded our state.  Millennia before that, when we were hemmed in by Pharaoh’s army on one side and the Sea on the other, we had to plunge into the sea before it split.


On a spiritual level we find the same dynamic.  Every step of spiritual growth involves risk.  We must leave behind our comfortable, old spiritual level, our treasured assumptions about who we are and how we fit into the world, and step into what may appear to be an abyss where nothing is certain.  We may be moving from a tiny hut into a palace, but we know the hut and we don’t know the palace, and letting go of the hut is sometimes terrifying.  But let go we must if we are to move on.


We are, however, not alone in taking risks.  Gd Himself, as it were, took a tremendous risk when He created human beings with free will.  We are not automata; we can choose to do as Gd would have us do, or we can choose otherwise.  We can choose to be a source of life and light in the world, or we can choose death and destruction.  Gd knew that if free will were to have any meaning at all, it must include a real possibility of misuse, that is, sin.  In fact, sin is almost inevitable, as King Solomon says (Kohelet 7:20) “…there is no one so righteous on earth that he always does what is good and never sins.”  But since the perfection of creation can only occur when finite human beings transcend their limitations and approach perfection, Gd as it were took that risk, and created the process of t’shuvah (repentance) so that we can rectify our sins when they occur.


Ultimately the Passover narrative, and indeed the entire narrative of the Jewish people, our exile, our redemption, further exile and final, triumphant redemption at the time of Moshiach, encapsulates the story of creation: separation of the finite from Gd and its eventual redemption and reunion with the Divine.  As we eat our “bread of affliction” let us remember the faith of our ancestors who risked everything to follow Gd into the trackless wilderness, and were rewarded with the exaltation of Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai.


Chag kosher v’samea’ch!