Rabbi Gary J Robuck
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, New South Wales
Some years ago, just two days before Pesach, I received a phone call from a young woman living some three hours from Sydney. She revealed to me that on Saturday night she would be hosting a number of dinner guests and that they would be celebrating Passover. I learned subsequently that she is a devout Christian and thrilled by the prospect of enjoying the seder meal for the very first time.
Unfortunately, though having received her specially made haggadah by her church, she had not until yesterday actually opened it. She had no idea of the preparation required, not even what was meant by unleavened bread. Having found my name on our website she turned to me, her new and unsuspecting rabbi, to talk her down from the ledge.
Our conversation left me with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was glad to be helpful. On the other hand, however, I was somewhat guarded and curious about her intentions. I wondered: to what extent and for how long have Christians appropriated Pesach? I thought about the many wonderful symbolic foods and historical rituals performed at the seder and speculated how they have been reinterpreted to suit Christianity.
To find out the answer, I turned to a piece written by Samuele Bacchiocchi, an emeritus professor of Theology and Church History at Andrews University Theological Seminary in the states. In his book, God’s Festivals in Scripture and History, he comments upon the sacrificial nature of the Pesach feast. He quotes from the first Book of Corinthians in which the New Testament author argues that Christians need not indulge in the Passover lamb (sacrifice) because Jesus has already been sacrificed, thus bringing about a redemption, not from Egyptian slavery, but from sin. With the sacrifice accounted for, Christians, not surprisingly, emphasise the bread and wine for reasons which are predictable.
Professor Bacchiocchi also sees ethical implications in the Christian Passover. Citing the Apostle Paul (Shaul) he discusses leaven, explaining that for Christians, it represents “malice and evil”, while unleavened bread is synonymous with “sincerity and truth”.
Isaiah 53 has also been forcefully reinterpreted to recall the “suffering of the Christian messiah”. Going further, the matzah’s holes and stripes have been invested with new meanings in a rather aggressive exegesis. One website explains that for Christians, matzah is the bread of heaven: the three slices an indication of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and ascent. Likewise, the three matzahs come to symbolise the “father, son and holy spirit”.
I wonder whether a like number of us would also be able to explain the significance of matzah to Jews? Matzah is, of course, a reminder of three things mainly. The first is the haste which was required of our ancestors when making their way out of Egypt, as it says in Shemot 12:39. The second reason given for the matzah is as lechem oni (the bread of poverty). Eating matzah, it is explained, helps to kindle empathy in our hearts for those people who must still, or have too often in the past, suffered hunger. Matzah is a symbol of liberty that, while precious, is often obtained only through initial privation. Lastly, though it should certainly not be the last word on the subject, matzah encourages humility. A flat spirit, in which ego is checked, permits one to puff up properly; that is, spiritually and in love of God, Torah and mitzvot.
The three matzahs are thought by many to represent the division of our people between kohanim (who reside on the top), leviim (the religious bureaucrats) and Yisraelim (the regular, ba’al ha’batim).
Some commentators understand the three matzahs as alluding to the three patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, while others see the matzahs as allusions to the three measures of flour that Avraham asked Sarah to bake for the angels visiting Avraham following his brit milah -something of a reach!
According to R. Zalman Schachter Shalomi, there’s a way of looking at the three matzahs using kabbalistic ideas. The three matzahs are the three s’phirot just below keter (crown), the highest one. The three matzahs are chabad (i.e. chochmah/intuitive wisdom), binah (the ability to distinguish, differentiate, analyse) and da-at (experiential knowledge). The top matzah is chochmah, the middle one is binah (chochmah using right brain; binah using left brain), and the bottom matzah is da-at (conceptualisation takes place in chochmah; analysis in binah; reality testing in da-at).
Later, from the “experiential” matzah of da-at, we take two pieces. On one we put some bitter herbs and some charoset and cover it all with the other piece and say: “In the Temple time this is the way Hillel, the gentle teacher, did it; he softened the bitter herb with the matzah of faith and the lamb of loving-kindness, chesed.”
The middle matzah, which is broken and hidden away for the afikomen, possesses meanings which are possibly not so well understood. Breaking the middle matzah is, according to a Tunisian tradition, reminiscent of the parting of the Reed Sea (though quite a bit more crumbly!). Some haggadot explain that setting aside a portion of the middle slice allows children the opportunity to chase after the afikomen or should you prefer, hide away the afikomen; kind of fun but not very revealing. For me, however, the middle matzah represents our peoples’ (indeed the whole world’s) ultimate redemption, which, like the afikomen itself, is hidden from view.
Let’s think about this. For so many years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, our people resided not only in galut (exile), but in desperate straits - physically impoverished and persecuted. It was during this time perhaps when the breaking of the middle matzah became a symbol of hope, as if to say: While our lives are broken now, threatened and torn, we yet hope for yamot ha‘mashiach (a messianic age), when hunger will be relieved, when our spirits will not be encumbered and when our people will be no longer bound to the yoke.
Indeed, I believe that the breaking of the middle matzah is a pivotal moment in the seder. It is an excellent symbol of liberation, a reminder to us to break free, to snap out of it and to, with haste, mend our broken spirits and heal our fractured relationship with our God and with our people.
So nu, it should be obvious that Pesach today, as before, is bursting with meaning ... so much so that even our Christian friends have embraced the seder. And what are we to make of its appropriation? We should not worry. Their interest is further confirmation of Pesach’s good health and vitality. Its message of liberty, thankfully, is being appreciated by more and more people of different religions.