The Seder as a Meditation on MATZAH

The seder is a journey from katnut (immature, childish, narrow-minded consciousness) to gadlut (mature, wise, broad-minded consciousness). From one perspective that IS the very essence of redemption. If a shift in perspective does not accompany the shift in circumstance, then that “deliverence” will backfire. At the seder, our expanding consciousness is evidenced by our evolving attitude toward matzah. In the course of the evening we will view the matzah in different ways, attributing different significance to this flat bread at each step of the way.

Our Pesach Meditation

The seder revolves around matzah as the Talmud states:

דאמר שמואל: לחם עני ־ לחם שעונין עליו דברים הרבה

[Based on the semantic relationship between עני (affliction) and עונין (speak about)] Shmuel asserts that matzah is called lechem oni (לחם עני) [generally translated as, “bread of affliction”] – because it is the bread over which (and about which) many words are spoken (onin/עונין). (TB Pesachim 36a, 115b).

The entire evening’s discussion happens over, around and about this flat bread. Matzah is the seder’s center of attraction. As such it becomes a meditative focus.

Meditation is defined as a continuous flow of thought on a particular object or point of focus. It could be one’s breath, a scriptural verse, an image, or a candle.  It could be the flow of thoughts that pass through one’s head, or the roller coaster of feeling tones, a question about life, or the nature of G-d, a decision that is looming, or even a choreography of movement.

Either way, the practice is the same. Our mind wanders, we notice, and return to focus.  It wanders and we return…over and over again. The seder is an evening-long meditation and matzah is our focus. Buddhists meditate on breath, Jews meditate on matzah.  We return our attention to the matzah throughout the seder, and each time we discover something new about it.

The matzah itself is a neutral object.  It is simple flat bread that sits at the center of the table and doesn’t talk or move and yet, even still, it goes through changes.  As we evolve and enlighten in the course of the evening we project a whole string of meanings and transformations onto that matzah, just like we do in real life vis a vis the world around us (and also vis a vis our conception of G-d).

1 – Matzah as Neutral Ground:

Maharal describes our initial encounter with the matzah as we gather round the table and notice it (along with the seder plate) as our center piece. The matzah here represents the stark existential fact of us as also dust and water, alone in the universe except for G-d. Despite the communion of family and friends, still, at our core, says he, we are alone with God, and that is the great equalizer.

Each one of us is a piece of matza (flour and water) with a story—with our own unique odyssey of exile and redemption.  In the course of our life journey some portion of Divinity actualizes its potential. And if the saga does not have a happy ending then we have not arrived at the end of the story.

2 – Yachatz[1]

The first thing that happens is that the matzah gets broken. This breaking of the matzah symbolizes the inevitable fall from grace or disillusionment that propels each cycle of growth. The Talmud asserts: “You cannot own (and fully integrate) a spiritual truth unless you have first stumbled over it.”[2] The thing that every stumbling has in common is that it spoils the tranquility of our status quo. It forces us to grapple with an unwelcomed reality and to find a way to recover our peace in spite of it.

Every growth spurt can be traced back to a symmetry-breaking moment. A breach erupts between our fantasy about how life was supposed to be and our actual experience of it. That rupture is symbolically reenacted when we break the middle matzah. The rest of the Haggadah is the path we take and the work we do to reunite these estranged pieces of ourselves and to finally, again, become whole.

3 – Lechem Oni[3]

The first actual mention of matzah in the Haggadah is as bread of affliction.

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם…

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt…”

This is different from our usual explanation for matzah being flat because we had no time to let the dough rise. At our Egyptian seder we ate matzah, maror and korban Pesach, yet it was obviously before we rushed out the following morning. A full two weeks before seder night we received instructions about Pesach which gave us more than enough time to prepare leavened bread.  Still, the command was to eat flat, hard, matzah bread at our Pesach meal.

Here, at the beginning of the evening, we look at the matzah and remember the hard, tasteless, pauper’s bread that we ate as slaves.  The matzah reminds us of our terrible condition of slavery and the abuse we suffered at the hands of cruel taskmasters, etc.[4]

4 – Ritual Bread – Meal Offering

The Haggadah then proceeds to discuss when we should observe our Pesach commemoration. It analyzes a verse from Exodus (13:8) to make that determination.

יכוֹל מֵרֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר “בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא” [שמות יג:ח]. אִי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יָכוֹל מִבְּעוֹד יוֹם, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה.” [שמות יג:ח] “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה” לֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֶלָּא בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיֵשׁ מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר מֻנָּחִים לְפָנֶיךָ:

One might think that the obligation to recite the story of the exodus applies from the first day of Nissan. The Torah therefore says, “On that day [ie the day of our ritual meal].”’ That day, however, could also mean while it is daylight; the Torah therefore says, “Because of this.” The expression because of this refers to the matzah and maror thus instructing us to commemorate the ritual meal that happened at night when matzah and maror were present before us.

Now, here, matzah acquires the status of ritual food, honored for its power to impact the soul. We ate matzah for years before our seder.  It was our staple as slaves. Yet on this night (at this holy meal), we look at the matzah and grasp its import as ritual food that influences us through a powerful psychic mechanism called symbolic resonance.[5]

Consequently, we celebrate our Pesach seder on the night of the 15th and not on the day (when we actually left), and not on Rosh Chodesh (when our first collective mitzvah was relayed). This is because our seder meal commemorates the matzah that was at that first seder—that was present for its symbolic value. As ritual food—sacrificial bread—matzah has no yeast because it represents humility. There is no puffing of ego.  The first step in a spiritual path, says the Baal Shem Tov, is to cultivate hakna’a, humility before God. All ritual meal offerings (except those for Shavuot and Thanksgivings) are flat breads, ie, matzot, to convey the message of humility and impress it upon the soul.

5 – Bread of Redemption

Before we actually eat the matzah the Haggadah instructs us to announce why we are doing so.  The Haggadah warns us that if we do not speak aloud our intention, we have not fulfilled the requirements of the day. And so we declare “We are eating this matzah because our ancestors did not have time to let their dough rise before the King of Kings revealed Himself and set us free.” Here, wow! We are free.  And freedom can come in the blink of an eye.  Pesach means literally, to leap over…קפיצה ודילוג) ). It looks like nothing is happening and then, in an instant, the scale tips and everything’s different. Now, we look at the matzah and we grasp (with certainty) that a paradigm shift can occur in an instant, no matter what it looked like in the moment before. Matzah instils the faith of “as then, so now:” Redemption can really come in the blink of an eye.

6 – Matzah Mitzvah—Medicinal Bread

Here we actually eat the matzah, which now becomes soul food (מיכלה דאסוותא), medicinal bread.  The matzah becomes a remedy that penetrates to the depths of the soul and heals ancient wounds.[6] Rav Tsadok explains:

There are 613 mitzvot that correspond to the 613 organs of body and soul.  Each mitzvah brings light, fixing and healing to some part of ourselves (which is often the area that is active in the performance of that mitzvah). Rav Tsadok notes that the first sin was an act of unrectified eating. Adam contained the souls of all humanity within him/her/them. We all participated in that decision to eat and we all suffered the shattering consequences of it. We all have a fracture deep in our soul inherited from that ancient time.  That soul wound is the cause behind the cause behind the cause of all neuroses, personality imbalances, and existential dissatisfactions—of everything that is not working in our lives.  It is an ancient eating disorder that we all share, though its symptoms vary from person to person.

The Passover seder is the only time of year when three acts of eating are actually commanded as mitzvot (religious obligations)—it is the only time that we say …asher kideshanu b’mitavotav (…אשר קדשנו במצותיו…) over an act of eating. R. Tsadok explains that these special Pesach mitzvot are our only opportunity to bring light and healing all the way down to that deep (and ancient) crack in our soul—to (metaphorically) rub salve directly on its wound.  Most of the time we are working with its secondary expressions, but on seder night the channels align and we can bring healing lights into contact with this most primal layer of soul.  The matzah here is a potent healing remedy.

7 – Bread of Faith[7]

The healing power of the matzah is ultimately its strengthening of faith. That is the salve that soothes the soul.

The whole seder is a ritual whose aim is to get us to a deeper understanding of what it means that: “I am HaShem who brought you (and brings you) out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This is the ultimate statement of faith. It contains all other truths within it.  If we really knew what it meant that “I am HaShem…who brought you out (and brings you out)—if we grasped that truth at its fiftieth gate our instinctive and reflexive way of moving through the world would be forever changed (and aligned). The power of matzah to touch the bedrock layer of our soul, is synonymous with its power to heal the cracks (large and small) in our faith.

Sod Yesharim calls the matzah: “Be here now bread.”[8] No matter where we are, no matter what we are facing, it is always possible to find HaShem in the here and now.  It is always possible to taste redemption in the present moment.

שמח נפשינו בישועתך

HaShem, please cause my nefesh (my animal soul) to find joy in your salvation [for, since there is no moment without a micro-step of redemption, there is no moment where joy is not at hand.]

8 – Afikomen (Dessert)

Now, at the end of the meal, the bread of affliction becomes a delicacy so sublime that we savor its taste by refraining from food for the rest of the evening. Even chocolate mousse would be a comedown from the Pesach afikomen. The wretched, disowned shadow self (represented by the hidden piece of matzah), that was exiled and disowned (in Yachatz), now returns with a treasure trove of consciousness and is honored with the status of dessert (the extra food beyond the meal distinguished by its sweetness). The joy of growth and expanding awareness is the sweetest pleasure of all, and this is what we taste in the Afikoman—the aliyah that emerges from the yeridah.

Here, at the end, we accept (and even celebrate) the fact of ourselves as bread and water with a story. Here, we enjoy the simple pleasure of becoming whole.


[1] For an expanded exploration of Yachatz see the Pesach teaching called, “The Inevitable Fall From Grace” Pesach Teaching from 2009 / 5769.
[2] BT Gittin 43a
[3] For an expanded exploration of the Purim theme of humility see the Pesach teaching called, “Matzah—Bread of Humility” Pesach Teaching from 2008 / 5768.
[4] The Vilna Gaon answers that our forefathers most definitely ate Matzo during the time of their bondage in Egypt. However, the Torah only mentions Matzah in conjunction with our departure, which was a Simcha, a joyous occasion. Matzah, and particularly that which we are referring to now, symbolizes as well the hardship we, as slaves, suffered in Egypt
[5] For an expanded exploration of the concept of symbolic resonance see the Pesach Teaching entitled “Symbolic Resonance Permeates the Seder” Pesach 5778 /2018.
[6] For an expanded exploration of profound tikun that happens through the eating of matzah at the pesach seder see the Pesach teaching called, “The Secret of Eating at the Pesach Seder,” Pesach Teaching from 2003 / 5763.
[7] See Zohar Raya Meheimna Bo 41a, Mamarei Admur Ha’emtzai Vayikra 2 p. 636
[8] In the sense that its entire production from dough to oven to cooling rack must not take more than 18 minutes (which is metaphoric rega relative to the time entailed in making yeasted bread).

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment

0

Start typing and press Enter to search