The sages were detailed readers of the Torah. Every word, every seeming peculiarity in the way stories were told or in how a law was expressed offered an opportunity to thrash out God’s will and message to His people. Even the most banal detail had the potential to lead to a transcendent truth. And so, when the Torah teaches us details about the baking and transport of matzah (unleavened bread) during the desert trek from Egyptian bondage, it should be no surprise that the sages would find a deeper message in the trivial: “And Egypt bore down on the people to hurry to send them off from their land… And the people carried off their dough before it rose, their kneading pans wrapped in their cloaks on their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:34)
Nothing about this verse is extraordinary. It expresses what we would expect. The rush of escaping slaves, scurrying about not to leave vital supplies behind, and carrying them by any means available. Still, when some of the rabbinic sages pictured the departure from Egypt, they imagined it as much more grandiose affair. With this in mind, this verse’s description becomes anomalous, as indicated in the following midrash: “’their kneading pans wrapped in their cloaks on their shoulders’ – Rabbi Natan asks [a rhetorical question]: ‘Were there no cattle there [for them to carry the load]?… If so, why does Scripture tells us that they wrapped it their cloaks and carried it on their shoulders? It comes to teach us that the Israelites loved performing the mitzvot.” (Adapted from Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Pisha 13, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 46) For Rabbi Natan, the children of Israel carried the implements for making matzah themselves not out of necessity but rather because of their enthusiasm for performing God’s will.
Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (the 2nd Gerer Rebbe), also known as the “Sfat Emet”, expands on this idea: “Since this was the first mitzvah that Israel was commanded, they received it with great joy. And this served as a model for all of future generations, namely, that they, too, should feel great joy in the performance of mitzvot. And this joy in the performance of a mitzvah is imbued in every single person through the power of our ancestor’s joy in performing this first mitzvah. As the sages teach (Shabbat 130a): Mitzvot which were received in joy are still performed with joy [today].” (Adapted from Sfat Emet Shmot 5642, Or Etzion ed. p. 97) This is a very important message. “Simkhah shel mitzvah” – the joyous performance of the commandments is the key to Jewish continuity. “Hands on” efforts count. Sharing and caring matter.
Being Jewish should not be a morose experience. It should be filled with joy and love. And if you love it, share it with enthusiasm!