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Pesah as a Mitzvah Celebration

By Eric Solomon | Issue Date: March 2000

Rava said to Rafram bar Papa:
Please tell us some of the good things Rav Huna used to do.
He said to him:
I do not remember things from his youth, but I do remember things from his old age… One of the things he used to do was – whenever he was about to sit down and eat, he would open his door and say, “Whoever needs to, may come in and eat.”

Ta’Anit 20b

At the beginning of the Pesah seder, just about the time when everyone at the table has gotten comfortable and is ready to begin, the haggadah asks us to do something that seems, on the surface, to be a bit strange. The leader holds up a piece of matzah and declares, “Ha Lahma Anya – This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. All who are hungry come and eat. All who are in need, come and share the Pesah meal.”

We who have heard the story of matzah all of our lives may be quick to associate matzah — a dry, simple staple — with our slavery in Egypt. But, if we look a little closer, we see that matzah is not necessarily connected with poverty and persecution since, according to the Torah, we ate matzah as we were leaving Egypt, already on our exodus. In that case, matzah could have been more clearly defined as the bread of our liberation; it was the first food we ate when we were no longer slaves.

This potential mislabeling begs us to think more deeply: What exactly is it about matzah that represents bondage? In the story of the Exodus, we read that when our people were about to be freed by Pharaoh, God dictated the first commandment to Moses and Aaron in the entire Torah: the institution of a calendar. The calendar was more than a set of dates; it was a blessed gift for it gave us the power to determine our own schedule, our own sense of time. When we were slaves, we were at the beck and call of our masters and never had time for our own spiritual and personal needs. Now, as a free people, we had more control of our own time and could more freely choose how we wanted to spend it. When we established our Jewish calendar, we made a statement about our freedom that was louder than the Liberty Bell.

Matzah, conversely, is a symbol of limited time. We are told that we hastened to leave Egypt, taking our dough before it was leavened, with our kneading bowls wrapped in cloaks on our shoulders. Matzah is a reminder of the period in our history when we were close to freedom, but we still did not have complete control over our own time and our own destiny. And when we begin our meal and invite all those in our community, our neighborhood, and our world to join with us, we are offering more than just food and spiritual nourishment. We are offering our less fortunate brothers and sisters the time to be free from worrying about some of their needs (food, shelter, commmunity) and to concentrate on celebration, freedom, and joy.

Maimonides once wrote that “whoever locks the doors of the courtyard on holidays, and eats and drinks with his wife and children, and does not provide food and drink for poor or suffering people, this is not a ‘mitzvah celebration’ but a ‘celebration of the belly’… and this kind of celebration is a disgrace.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals, 6:8) Let us continue the proud B’nai Jeshurun tradition of making Pesah a mitzvah celebration. We should all seriously consider inviting those members of our community in emotional, spiritual, or physical need to our homes for Pesah. If that is not possible, then I encourage our members to donate the cost of one setting at the Pesah table to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger at 1240 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 303, Los Angeles, CA 910251015. In this way, we can assure that all of our brothers and sisters can appreciate the liberating celebration of Pesah.