“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”
We raise the matzah to announce that we are going to relive the experience of the Jews in Egypt. Try to imagine: What was it like being a slave in Egypt?
Matzah represents two things: the food of our slavery, and the food we ate in our haste to leave Egypt. The Haggadah begins by referring to matzah as “the bread of affliction” — the food of slavery.
Why does “food” recall the slavery experience? Of all that is bad about servitude, lack of ability to travel, harsh treatment, and lack of privacy would all seem to be worse problems than food. When recalling slavery in 19th century America, do we usually focus on the fact they had terrible food?! How can we as Jews, who know what it means to suffer, point to matzah and say, “That’s how bad Egypt was?"
Furthermore, it is surprising that the Egyptians fed the Jews matzah. Matzah was more difficult for the Egyptians to make. Flour and water will naturally rise to make bread if you leave it but a few minutes. If the Egyptians gave the Jews matzah to eat — as opposed to bread — it was because they made a conscious effort to do so.
Furthermore, slaves are valuable as a work force, and a worker is only as good as the food he eats. His food needs to be nourishing if he is to stay healthy and strong. But matzah does not seem to fit this bill. Clearly, if a slave is being fed matzah, it is because the master does not want the slave to be strong — he only wants the slave to survive.
Survival for the Sake of Survival?
The job of the Jews in Egypt was to build storehouses. Storehouses store grain. Grain makes matzah. The Jews ate the matzah so they could work. Their work was building storehouses ... The cycle of production and consumption had no ultimate goal. The oppression of Egypt was meaninglessness.
A human being can endure all manners of suffering if he believes there is some meaning to it. If he appreciates the true meaning of life and focuses on life’s ultimate purpose, then he can even survive the Holocaust.
But what about the person who has no real purpose for living? What if he instead invents some “make-believe” purpose? In that case, all shades of delusion are possible, none more sensible than any other. That is why we see some people living to collect beer bottles, some to hit a baseball the farthest, and some to dine at Europe’s finest restaurants. The simplest “purpose” is to live for a good meal. That’s called “living to eat.” And typically, that is the lifestyle of a slave. Can anything be more crushing than the realization that one’s whole existence is only to feed the body?
This is what the Egyptians wished to make out of the Jews.
But the Egyptian plan backfired. Because it was that very matzah that kept the Jews focused and clear. When the slave’s food is as tasteless as matzah, he can have no delusions of purpose. He knows he is not living for the pleasure of eating, only for the energy that food gives him.
What about our lives today and the “tasty food” we consume? That taste comes in many forms — not only a good meal, but also a fancy car and a promising career. In essence, we may not be living for anything more meaningful than does the slave; the slave merely finds it harder to delude himself into believing he is living for a greater purpose, since he lacks the distractions of “tasty food.”
The Haggadah poses the question: Could we survive on matzah all year round — or do we need “taste” to keep a delusion alive?
Rabbi Stephen Baars
Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. An educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years, Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at www.getbliss.com and www.core9.live.