Matzah Ethics

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We’ve eaten matzah during this Passover week because the Torah/G-d requires it and forbids chametz (leavened bread).  As my nine-year old grandson proudly told us during our family seder, the traditional reason why matzah is required and chametz forbidden is to remind us that Israelites left Egypt hurriedly, without time to let their bread rise.” (Exodus 12:34, 39, 13:6-7; Deuteronomy 16:3-4).


Beyond this straightforward explanation, can we learn any ethical lessons from the requirement to eat matzah and abstain from leavened bread?  Indeed, yes.  I would like to suggest five ethical themes: 


First, Escape/Freedom from Our Hurtful Past


Spring is the season of nature’s rebirth, with its hopeful opportunities for the future.  A fermented, rotting, decayed grain of old wheat is an ancient symbol of death.  Matzah, which has never undergone fermentation and, unlike bread, contains no yeast from the past -- can remind us that we have the opportunity for a new beginning, in which we forgive others and ourselves, thereby bringing spiritual purity and liberation from past oppression.  Matzah is about forgiveness


Second, Respect and Sensitivity for Others


Eating matzah is a reaffirmation of our democratic roots -- around the table and in the Jewish community.  It is a reminder that no matter how rich, famous, or powerful we have become, we were all once equally slaves.  During Pesach, we again eat the “bread of affliction,” and remember that billions of other people still do so daily -- if they have any kind of bread at all.  Matzah reminds us to identify with those who are still enslaved, homeless, and hungry. Matzah is about empathy


Third, Humility


Our tradition (Talmud Brachot 17a) associates chametz -- the yeast in the dough -- with our evil inclination, the yetzer hara.  Leavening -- rising -- represents egotism.  Avoiding leavening reminds us to avoid inflated self-importance.  Actually, humility means occupying your rightful space, being neither overblown, nor shrunken away in self-deprecation.   It’s interesting that in the order of the Passover seder -- the word itself means “order” -- matzah is exactly in the middle of the fifteen steps, signifying the central role that humility plays in the journey of growth from personal slavery to redemption. The prohibition of chametz remind us of how diligent we should be in ridding our hearts of arrogance and self-centeredness. Matzah is about humility.


Fourth, the Sanctity of our Homes


The Torah prohibited chametz all year from inclusion in altar meal offerings.  (Leviticus 2:11, 6:9-10).  By eradicating all chametz from our homes during Passover, we are reminded that we should seek to turn our homes into mini-altars of sanctity. Matzah is about holiness.


Fifth: Purifying Our Intentions


Note that matzah is made of wheat, rye, oats, barley, or spelt.  If it can’t become chametz, it can’t become matzah!  It is not grain itself that is chametz, but grained moistened and allowed to ferment.  What makes the grain permitted or forbidden is the purpose to which it is put – just like our intentions, our impulses, and resources.  We consecrate or desecrate life by how we live.  Matzah is about purity of our intentions and actions


Every year before Pesach, Rabbi Israel Salanter, born in Lithuania in 1809 and founder of the modern Mussar -- or Jewish ethics -- movement, would inspect matzah bakeries to check that they were maintaining stringent kashrut. One owner was confident of his efficient matzah production, and so was shocked when Rabbi Salanter declared that the bakery was in violation of the halakhic prohibition against blood in food. “Where is the blood,” he protested incredulously? “Your sense of efficiency, together with the unacceptable demands placed upon your workers, shows that their blood is mixed into the food produced in this bakery,” Rabbi Salanter answered. Even though there wasn’t actual blood mixed into the matzah, Rabbi Salanter would not certify the kashrut of the matzah.


And in a similar vein, at another time Rabbi Yisrael was unable to be present during the baking of his Pesach matzah, about which he was extremely meticulous. He assigned one of his disciples to watch over the baking and instructed him to be extremely careful not to upset the woman who kneaded the dough and not to rush her because she was a widow.  Upsetting her would be a violation of the prohibition against oppressing widows and orphans. Rabbi Yisrael added: “The kashrus of the matzos is not completed by observing all the elaborations in the laws of Pesach alone, but also requires the meticulous observance of the laws of behavior toward other people.”


Passover is almost over.  Before we welcome chametz back into our lives, let’s resolve to carry the ethical meanings of matzah -- forgiveness, empathy, humility, holiness, and purity of intentions and actions -- with us the entire year.


Shabbat shalom. 



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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3