As I was driving home last week I saw a sign on a synagogue that disturbed me. On one of those outside announcement signs that usually say something like “JUF FUNDRAISER APR 1” or LEVY BAR MITZVAH AUG 30 I read the following: HAVE AN EASY PASSOVER.
I don’t normally get angry at signs, but this one really bothered me. It read too much like another sign which you sometimes see around Yom Kippur: HAVE AN EASY FAST. Now I’ll be the first to admit the fast of Yom Kippur is not an easy one, but for the observant in the northern hemisphere, it’s a piece of cake (so to speak) compared to the longer fast of Tish B’Av. Passover is far from a fast, indeed for two Seders and all those leftovers one could easily be stuffed. Many a Seder I feel like God’s angry retort to the people complaining manna isn’t enough, they will be so stuffed it will be coming out of their noses. [Numbers 11:20] To be honest I’m very happy I’m that stuffed.
I’ll also admit there is one very difficult task that happens before Passover: getting ready for Passover. Cleaning the house, preparing the food for the week and changing the dishes is not an easy task by any means. For me that means cleaning a small studio apartment, paper plates and preparing my Yemenite Haroset, and that is hard enough compared to what family households have to do. But the sign did not say Have an easy preparation for Passover. It was implying Passover is hard. Eating Passover foods and prohibiting the seven species of grains for one week is some kind of affliction on our lives according to that sign. I have a problem with that.
Right at the beginning of the Seder, we read about Matzah as an affliction in the Haggadah:
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are starving come to eat. All who are needy come to the Passover meal. This year here. For the year to come in the land of Israel. This year as slaves, for the year to come as free men.
As one of the Aramaic passages in the Haggdah, I expected to find the passage quoted in Talmud Balvi. In looking up this passage, I could find no Talmudic mention of the passage. Medieval sources such as the Rambam and Ramban quote it completely. Wherever its original source, It is based on a biblical passage indicating the procedures for Passover:
3. You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shall you eat unleavened bread with it, the bread of affliction; for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste; that you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. [Deuteronomy 16]
While the Talmud did not explicitly mention the haggadah passage, the idea of such a passage does come from a Talmudic source
Samuel said: Bread of [‘oni] [means] bread over which we recite [‘onin] many words. It was taught likewise: ‘Bread of [‘oni]’ means bread over which we recite [‘onin] many words. Another interpretation: ‘Bread of [‘oni]’: ‘ani [poverty] is written: just as a beggar generally has a piece, so here too a piece [is taken]. Another interpretation: just as a poor man fires [the oven] and his wife bakes, so here too, he heats and she bakes. [Pes 115b-116a]
In a series of word plays on the word for affliction,’oni, the rabbis note that the word for affliction could also mean poverty and recitation. They made the conclusion it could mean both. We are to recite many words over the matzah to tell its story and why it is so significant. Read another way, we are to not bless over a whole matzah like a rich man but like a poor man. We are to have only a piece, which is why we break the middle matzah in two. Finally a poor man has little wood and has to bake very quickly, so too we need to bake in haste as though we are poor men.
The Talmud also mentions another passage which I find instructive. To answer the four questions, the Talmud instructs to so in the following way:
According to the son’s intelligence his father instructs him. He commences with shame and concludes with praise; and expounds from ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ until he completes the whole section.[Pesachim 116a]
The text tells us to use a passage from Deuteronomy, related to the first fruits offering:
5. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God, A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery; 7. And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression; 8. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders; 9. And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey…11. And you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. [Deuteronomy 26]
Today’s Haggadah not only recites this passage, but the whole story of the Exodus, with many commentaries along the way. The recitation of Deuteronomy 26:5 gets expanded but now reads An Aramean tried to destroy my father, a reference to Laban by changing the meaning of the word for wandering to destroy. But the point of the Seder and Passover is found in verse 11. We are to rejoice in every good thing in our lives. We are to remember that God blessed us. One of the most powerful of those blessings was freedom. We ate matzah because we were leaving affliction behind, not that Passover is an affliction, like that synagogue sign seemed to imply.
To say Passover is an affliction is to be like the people in the desert of Numbers 11, who were whining things were so much better in Egypt, the same ones that God wanted stuffed to their nostrils. The status quo of slavery for them was apparently better than being free and eating manna. They were saying that the freedom we were granted by God on Passover is not worth anything. That sign said the same thing. It was saying the bounty that is on our tables for Passover is not worth anything. Is a few muffins, oatmeal and a slice a bread so horrific to go without?
Through the Passover story, the bread of affliction transforms into a bread of freedom. As, the bread of affliction the passage relates, it is the transformation from slavery to freedom, from starving to full. Like the people in the desert we too can be slaves to the status quo. Like them, it is then we suffer and perish.
Passover, like the first fruit offering, is about counting the blessings we have been given. Passover is the most observed Jewish holiday. It is not the most observed holiday because it competes with other holidays, as does Hanukkah. It is not due to some deep meaning of praying for our soul like Yom Kippur. Passover is the ultimate home holiday, the one where we surround ourselves with family and friends and celebrate all that we have. Every bite of matzah is not an affliction, but a blessing of having all of this around us. It is a blessing in hearing the noise of the kids, the blessing of making all that food, it is a blessing in hearing a young one saying the four questions, or belting out Dayenu off key. It is a blessing in trying to stuff too many chairs into too little space for all those people to be there. It is the blessing of having that first Hillel sandwich, and chicken soup with matzo balls. While the seders may go on for two evenings, Passover goes on for seven days, which might seem a lot, but each one has its blessing. Everything that is traditional for Passover, even refusing foods, is a celebration. Freedom is not just that oppression had ended but that we can now choose what we do. To choose not to eat hometz is a choice we can make that is demonstrating our freedom. We show that we will not give to the oppression and slavery of craving or habit.
It is also a reminder not everyone does have those blessings in their lives, and our responsibility to help those who need the help, to bring those people blessings as well. Maybe this year is bad for them; next year will be good for them with our help. A Hasidic rabbi once stated that “Next year in Jerusalem” is not about a place but a state of mind. We are in a state of blessing, as though we were at the temple in Jerusalem. Next year in Jerusalem is not about just us, but about everyone being there, and about bringing everyone to such a state.
So when we read in the Aramaic, Ha lach-ma Anya, remember the week of Passover is not one of affliction, but of celebration.
May everyone have a joyous Pesah, filled with blessing.