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Unmasking matzah

What if you discovered that the coronavirus pandemic was no more - that a cure and a vaccine were found? The Israelite slaves in Egypt knew that split-second reversal of reality
Matzah. (iStock)
Matzah. (iStock)

Imagine that you are sitting at your kitchen table, sewing masks for your family so that you can go outside. There are no more masks left in stock in any store near you so you are left to make them on your own. Suddenly, as you attach a button to the fabric, you hear loud shouting outside. You run to your door, and cautiously peek out to see what has caused all the uproar. You are confronted by an extraordinary sight: people are filling the streets, singing, dancing and embracing. You put on your unfinished mask and venture a little closer, but still six feet away, and ask one of the revelers what happened. She replies: ”They found a cure for coronavirus. It is going to be available immediately. Everyone who is sick will immediately recover, and a vaccine will protect the rest of us.”

You stuff your half-finished mask into your pocket and join the revelry, rejoicing that the coronavirus nightmare has come to an end.

When you come back to your house the next day, you carefully place your mask on the mantel. In later years, when visitors ask why you have a piece of fabric with one button and a rubber band featured prominently in your living room, you tell them your story of how you found out that you were saved from the coronavirus pandemic, and how the fear and anxiety completely dissolved. Every time you look at that piece of fabric, you remember that your situation can change in an instant, that fear and loss can be replaced by comfort and hope.

This story may seem like wishful thinking, but it is the story we tell at our seder every Passover. Our ancestors were slaves, oppressed and fearful. They suffered and thought their suffering would never end. And then everything changed.

We recite at the seder: “This matzah — why do we eat it? To remind ourselves that even before the dough of our ancestors in Egypt had time to rise and become leavened, the King of kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, was revealed and redeemed them.” In less than the time it would take to bake a loaf of bread, our ancestors’ lives were totally transformed. The mightiest empire in the world was defeated by the slaves’ G-d. They became free people, about to leave their land of oppression for their own land. The bread that they had started baking in captivity became the bread that they would always associate with their liberation.

We can relate to this experience of life-altering moments in our personal lives. Think of a moment when you received a phone call or met someone and your life immediately changed. Sometimes, yes, the phone call or encounter brought sorrow or pain. But sometimes it brought new opportunities for joy or freedom that you never expected, and your life was never the same. Maybe, the day after despairing you would ever find a soul mate, you met the person with whom you would spend the rest of your life. Or perhaps you were at a professional crossroads and an opportunity came your way out of the blue.

Of course, the mask sitting on your mantel is not a simple thing to contemplate. It invites much more than joy. Your thoughts are so complex when you look at it. On one hand, it symbolizes recovery and deliverance, and sometimes, when asked about it, you tell about the magical moment when you learned that a cure had been found. But other times, you recall the dark days of the virus, the many people we lost, the overwhelmed emergency rooms, our crumbled illusions that our technological competence could protect us from epidemic.

The matzah too is complex. The Talmud in Pesachim suggests that matzah is called lechem oni, the bread of oni, because it is bread that invites much discussion (lechem she’onim alav devarim harbeh). There is so much to say about it because it brings up so many conflicting thoughts and emotions. It reminds us of our slavery in Egypt, when we had no control over what happened to us or to the people we loved. And it also reminds us that our lives can turn around in an instant, in less than the space of time that it takes for dough to rise. It is at once both liberating and deeply unsettling. It gives us hope and it frightens us. It forces us to acknowledge that we have but an illusion of control.

At our Pesach seder, we model to the next generation how to respond to a world that is beyond our control. We try to create structure and order (seder). We acknowledge our vulnerability (ha lachma anya — “this is the bread of our affliction”). We help others in need, feeding them and including them at our table (kol difchin yetei veyechol — “all who are in need, come eat with us”). We fight against oppression (the episode of the five rabbis in Bnei Berak). We express gratitude for all the good we have in our lives (dayenu). We delve deeply into these questions and reaffirm the possibility of redemption (“and even if we are all wise, it is still incumbent upon us to tell the story) and share our wisdom with our children (vehigadeta l’vincha — “and you shall tell your children”). We commit ourselves to building a redeemed world (l’shana haba’ah beyerushalayim — next year in Jerusalem). And as we eat our matzah, we acknowledge with faith and humility that we never know what will come next.

About the Author
Aliza Sperling teaches Talmud at the Yeshivat Maharat/ Yeshiva Chovevei Torah Beit Midrash Program and directs Svivah’s HerTorah, an inclusive and open women’s learning community. She serves as a Hartman research fellow and a Wexner faculty member. She received her ordination from Yeshivat Maharat and a JD from NYU Law School. Aliza lives with her family in Riverdale, NY.