April 6, 2012

As a novice collector of Haggadot, I find many of them are unique and offer a new way to look at the holiday and specifically the seder.  At the back of Rabbi Menachem Kasher's very well known encyclopedic work of the Haggadah (460 pages to be exact), “Haggadah Sheleimah” there is a commentary by Rabbi Yosef Gikitilla, who was a thirteenth century Spanish kabbalist.

Rabbi Gikitilla argues that there is nothing simple or impoverished about matzah.  Lechem ani cannot mean "poor bread" because, in fact, matzah is “pure bread!”  Rather, chametz is the poor brethren.  Rabbi Gikitilla compares this to a powerful light.  When exposed to overwhelming light, we are blinded.  In order to see properly, we generally need a mixture of light and shadow. It is not that bright light obscures things but that our own weakness, as it were, prevents us from perceiving in "whiteout" conditions. So, too, we generally need a mixture of pure bread and chametz to facilitate digestion.  We ourselves are a mixture of spiritual and material qualities; we simply cannot handle pure truth. The real reason for eating matzah at yetziat mitzrayim (our liberation from Egypt) is to prepare the people for the Revelation at Sinai by purging us of as much material limitation as possible.

Rabbi Gikitilla explains this in the context of the Rabbinic concept that all sacrifices except for the todah (sacrifice for giving thanks or confession) will be annulled in the redeemed future (Vayikra Rabbah 9:7). Why would the todah remain? The todah was the only korban (sacrifice) offered over chametz. The reason is that the todah (translated as "confession", not “thanksgiving”) will remain as reminder of our past iniquity, symbolized by the chametz, which is, of course, a symbol of the yetzer harah (evil inclination).

What is the take in all this? The matzah becomes less a sign of our past enslavement and more a sign of our current weakness and dependence on chametz. It helps us understand what "hashta avdei" means--we may not be physically enslaved, but we are constantly compromised by our desires and “are slaves.” Just try to keep eating matzah alone for a week after Pesach! So this exercise is really one of self-control, purging, and preparing ourselves for Revelation and redemption. Matzah is less about memory and more about aspiration, less about the past and more about the future.  I find this perspective to be both challenging and uplifting.  It explains for me the messianic longing that pervades the Haggadah.

May your matzah be satisfying this year, even if you yearn for a bagel by the end of Pesach.  I wish you all a Chag kasher v'sameach!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham