Pesach: Beauty in Simplicity

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. . . “ (Shmot/ Exodus 12:39)

Dear Friends:

Earlier today, the New York Board of Rabbis shared some thoughts from Rabbi Marc Angel regarding the symbolic foods of Passover: matzah, maror, and the shankbone or reminder of the ancient Pesach offering. You can find his interpretations here, but let me quote from his explanation of matzah:

“Matzah is a basic, no-frills item. It is flour and water, without leavening. It stands for our basic selves, unpretentious, not inflated with vanity or pride. . .
Because of its sheer simplicity and honesty, Matzah symbolizes freedom. When we really know who we are, we gain a fine sense of our own freedom. We can be strong unto ourselves; we can rise above the fray; we can stop playing games of who has more, who has better, who has control. When we are free within, we have the confidence to live our own lives, not the counterfeit lives that others would impose on us.”

It occurs to me that Rabbi Angel’s explanation of matzah is taken one step further by applying the idea of hiddur mitzvah, or “beautifying the commandment.” I’ve written about this idea before (see here, where you’ll also find links to further explorations of the concept), but the basic idea is rather simple: when we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, we should try to do it in an appealing and pleasing way. Thus we make kiddush in a nice glass or silver cup, or perhaps have embroidered covers on our matzah at the Seder table, or wear a colorful tallit of nice fabric rather than a plain or rough cloth.

So far, so good. The interesting thing about matzah, though, is that you can’t really make it more “beautiful” or adorned without making it not matzah. If you add anything other than flour and water to the – eggs, sugar, fruit juice, chocolate- it’s suitable as a unleavened treat (depending on your custom) but not appropriate to use as matzah at the Seder, when we eat only regular matzah to remember the liberation from Egypt.

However, there are people (myself included) who do buy a special kind of matzah, called shmurah matzah, as a “hiddur” or extra beautifying of the commandment. This matzah is usually round, hand-made, often with special flour that’s guarded against moisture, and it’s not, in fact, more “beautiful” in a conventional visual sense than the perfectly square, perfectly consistent machine-made matzah you get from a box. Hand-made matzah is often bumpy, sometimes burned, sometimes odd roundish shapes, sometimes tougher to eat- and yet for me, precisely because it is closer to that “essence” of matzah, a remembrance of what our ancestors would have made from leftover dough as they streamed out into the desert, it is, to me, an adornment of the commandment. Not in a visual or sensual way, but as an expression of that simplicity and honesty that Rabbi Angel teaches is the core idea of matzah.

In other words, sometimes to make something more beautiful and sacred, we have to strip it down to its essence, to its most basic form and concept. This then becomes an object lesson not for our food but for our lives: in order to become glorious, not physically but spiritually, we have to work on discarding our distractions, moving aside anything extraneous or contrary to our essential being and deepest self. Matzah is a radically simple thing; even the machine-made squares are remarkably similar to what matzah has always been for thousands of years. When we encounter it during our Feast of Freedom, it calls us back to ourselves, as individuals and as a people. When we celebrate and give thanks over the most simple food, it teaches us to focus on what’s essential in life, and be grateful. That’s ultimately not about our bread, but about our souls.

With warmest wishes for a healthy and happy Pesach,

RNJL

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