This week, we welcome the holiday of Passover, the holiday of freedom. During the Passover seder, we act out the story of our ancestors being redeemed from Egypt. In the Talmud, there’s also the idea that we are supposed to understand ourselves to have been redeemed from slavery, too.
And there are those who take it one step further. Our ancestors were redeemed in ancient Egypt, we too were redeemed, and not only that: The 19th-century Chassidic Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (commonly known by the name of his influential book, The Sefat Emet) teaches that each and every year we have the chance to be newly free – if we put in the spiritual work. He writes:
“On every Passover, a Jew becomes like a new being like we were during the Exodus from Egypt; like a newborn child. The inner essence implanted by God within our hearts is renewed. That inner essence is called lechem ‘oni [poor people’s bread–a synonym for matzah] because it is totally without expansion. Matzah is just the essence of dough, which afterward changes and ferments. In the same way, every Jew has an inner essence, a gift from God. And actually, our usual task is to expand that point, to draw all our deeds to follow it. This is our job throughout the year, for better or worse. But when this Holiday of Matzot comes, it is the time when that inner essence itself is renewed and purified from all defilement. Therefore, we must guard it from any “ferment” or change on this holiday.”
One way to take this is that matzah is our essential self, and bread (chametz) represents our poofed-up ego, what we are with all the trappings of identity and society on us. This is the one time of year when we must strip away all the shmutz (dirt) that has accumulated onto our essential selves. We must find and watch carefully over this inner essence of ours, this essential self, just like people watch over the dough of matzah to make sure it doesn’t poof up into chametz. This, in fact, is the freedom of the holiday of Passover: we get to become like brand new beings, getting back to our most essential, matzah selves.
Over the last two years, including two Passovers that were the most alone I’ve ever been, I’ve experienced being stripped of all those markers of success, power, and even relationship that I held dear. Maybe you have too. We’ve lost jobs and friendships. We’ve lost the chance to show off our wealth or clothes or artistic flair because we couldn’t leave the house. We’ve lost status. Frankly, we’ve lost a lot of that poofed-up ego we usually carry. Perhaps this year, it’s not the matzah self of this teaching that we most need to get in touch with; the pandemic has done that very well. Perhaps it’s the freedom that comes with it, and the starting anew. We have a chance to re-enter in-person society as the version of ourselves we truly want to be. That is a much deeper kind of freedom.
**Photo courtesy of North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ)
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.