Pesach, Matzah, Maror in a Time of Plague

This Passover will be the strangest and most atypical Passover holiday in our memory.

Sedarim will have a Fifth Question added to the standard Four:  “Why is this year’s Passover preparation different from all other preparations?  In previous years we invited families, friends and strangers to our Seder. Why, this year, are we by ourselves.”

Our celebratory Seder meal of freedom from Egyptian slavery will be simpler, more restrained and definitely much shorter.  It won’t include the frenzied energy of timing ceremonial rituals so that the matzah ball soup can be served hot and the gefillte fish, cold.  It won’t have a great many responsive readings (maybe a good thing?), nor arguing about too much or too little Hebrew/English/skipping/not skipping, and searching for the afikoman will probably be forgone if no little children are present.

Dayeinu!  Enough kvetching about how different this Seder will be from past ones!

Dayeinu!  Enough ruminating over what was and what isn’t!

One short verse in the Haggadah, read at every Seder, yet, in the midst of the array of holiday foods, conversations and singing, is often not given much thought:

“Rabban Gamliel said:  Whoever has not explained the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled the Seder: Pesach, Matzah, Maror.”

 To use a mixed metaphor, they are: “The reasons for the season.”

Notice, he makes no reference to brisket, kugel, soup, or any of the other foods for which we wait in anticipation every year: just the Pesach offering, the Unleavened Bread of Affliction (Matzah) and Bitter Herbs (Maror). As long as these three symbols are discussed, the Seder will be complete.

Pesach offering:

The Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, was performed as a reminder of the lamb’s blood placed on the doorposts of our ancestors homes in Goshen, to keep the Angel of Death from their homes and today, is represented by a shank-bone, on the Seder plate.

If you left the “self-quarantine” of your home in Goshen when the Plague was making its way across Egypt, you were “fair game.”

I can only imagine what thoughts were going through the minds of ancient Israel as they sat cowering in their homes, isolated and alone, hearing screams and cries coming from outside.  What kind of rumors must have been swirling around them?  What “news” stories and “facts” were being circulated by neighbors who had become instantaneous “experts” in Plague matters?

The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

Matzah/Bread of Affliction

The former slaves left Egypt so quickly that “the dough baked on their backs” as they ran fleeing Pharaoh.

Freedom doesn’t come cheap nor easily.  It often requires sacrifice, struggle and yes, even deprivation- but the reward for temporary discomfort is priceless.

Today, Matzah is an everyday commodity readily found in multiple grains, flavors, and even gluten-free, on market shelves and like freedom, is often taken for granted.

As we sit at our Seder, eating the Bread of Affliction, remember this: the ingredients for Matzah are the most basic to be found- flour and water.  Once it is baked and not handled with care, it crumbles into broken pieces and turns into crumbs:  Matzah in name only.

So too with freedom:  it’s basic in its concept:  all people have the God given right to freedom. If not handled with care, it too crumbles into broken pieces and crumbs:  Freedom in name only.

Maror/Bitter Herbs:

The lash of the whip, the bitterness of bondage and forced labor, all these are remembered when the Bitter Herbs are tasted at our Seder meal.

This year, however, upon eating the Maror, break from the habit of trying to mitigate its sharpness by rushing to drink wine or sweetening it with some Charoset.  This year, really taste the sharpness, the bitterness; and realize that it’s not just a reminder of what once was, but is still the ongoing reality of what too many people experience everyday.

True, this year, Passover Seder will be the strangest (and perhaps) loneliest Seder for Jews around the world, but it also might prove to be one of the most spiritually uplifting and enlightening Seder as well.  Isolation in our homes will provide an opportunity to speak with our children and each other, about sacrifice, real struggle and hardship, and the gift of freedom. These are the true messages and meaning of Pesach, Matzah and Maror, not just for the People of Israel, but for our world as well.

May it be a Chag Sameach- a good and happy holiday, a healthy holiday, a beautiful and meaningful holiday for us all.

About the Author
Rabbi Norman S. Lipson is Founding Rabbi of Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, Florida. Israel advocacy and education have been in the forefront of Rabbi Lipson's more than 50 years in the rabbinate. Having led numerous Pilgrimages to Israel, he teaches about Israel and Judaism through inter-faith and adult education programs in South Florida. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he holds a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. He is the author of two books: “How Many Memories Make a Minyan?” and “Rabbi, My Dog Ate My Shofar!” both available on Kindle Bookstore.
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