(originally posted in August, 2013)
It all started when I bought a toy flour mill for my two-year-old daughter Molly a few weeks before Passover. I was preparing for the tot Shabbat program I lead each month, and, while we usually make challah every month, it was obvious that for our Passover session, we could hardly make challah. We’d have to make…matzo. So, I figured I could make the process a little more “colorful” and interesting by grinding our own flour. This gave me the perfect excuse to buy that not-inexpensive (but fully functioning) flour mill I’d seen in the organic toy catalog that I’d been wanting but couldn’t justify buying.
The mill came, I clamped it on the kitchen table, and went out and bought wheat berries (who knew what wheat looked like before it was flour, except for, if you’re as old as I am, those scenes of “…amber waves of grain…” during America the Beautiful before the television stations signed off at night). I dumped a small amount of the berries into the hopper, and, with Molly’s help, turned the crank. Oh. My. Gosh. Out came flour. A soft, fine, beautiful, perfect (warm!) powder. Just like from the store! And all of a sudden it hit me! This is what our ancestors were doing in Egypt. This is what the whole eating-matzo thing is about. It’s not about eating the matzo. It’s about making it to eat it. The goal of seeing ourselves as slaves in Egypt isn’t accomplished by simply eating the matzo, but by what it takes to eat the matzo: the making of it!
Then I starting digging. In the Torah, the mishnah, the Talmud, the codes. I learned everything I could about matzo and came upon the most striking revelation. [Something they never taught us in rabbinical school!] Guess what? Turns out, the halacha is that each and every Jew make their own matzo! And when? On the afternoon of the first seder—after you’ve cleaned out your entire house of chametz, and even burned the remaining chametz, and recited the if-there’s-any-more-here-it’s-null-and-void prayer—you’re supposed to get out the flour and make matzo on your kitchen table! So the seder really begins with making your own matzo with your guests right before you sit down for the (rest of the) seder!
With gratitude to Beyn Kodesh l’Chol “Learning for Liberation” Bet Midrash for deepening my understanding of this text.
As Passover approaches, many of us are creating or editing haggadot, figuring out if and how we want to engage in virtual seders, making shopping lists, and otherwise preparing for the holiday. An exploration of one of the most foundational stories of our tradition, Passover invites us to experience the Exodus from Egypt as if we were coming out of Egypt ourselves. The story of the Exodus becomes a framework for our personal journeys, asking each of us to consider where we are coming from and, if we are lucky, where we are going. While the story of the Exodus doesn’t change, we change and grow, reflecting and carrying different aspects of this story and history with us in different moments.
The Passover Haggadah teaches “וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח / …and all who increase in their telling of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, behold they are praiseworthy.” It is in the increase, the embellishment, the sinking in to the story, the feeling, the experience of liberation that brings us to the deep identification the Haggadah desires. We are not only to recall the Exodus but to experience it as if we were there, as if we are there now. Immediately following this teaching, the Haggadah offers examples of this injunction (how do we increase our telling of this story?), and lifts up a teaching from the Mishnah in Masechet Berakhot.
מַזְכִּירִין יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת
We are obligated to mention the Exodus from Egypt at night (Mishnah Berakhot 1:5)
This mishnah appears in the midst of a discussion about the recitation of the Shema, specifically the third paragraph, which mentions both tzitzit (ritual fringes) and the Exodus from Egypt. Assuming we wouldn’t mention tzitzit at night because we can’t see them, this mishnah comes to teach us that we are still obligated to recite this paragraph in the nighttime because even though we need not mention tzitzit, we must recall the Exodus at night.
My chevruta Eddie once told me a story that I’ll never forget. It’s a story his father told him. And, now, it’s a story I’d like to tell you. When Eddie’s father Jay was a teenager, he got a job as a camp counselor at a sleepaway camp. He was assigned to a bunk of first-time campers, boys seven and eight years old. On the first day of camp, the young campers were warmly greeted as they got off the bus, led to a welcome-to-camp gathering, met their counselors and bunkmates, and were then shown to their cabins to unpack their clothes and get settled. After the kids had unpacked, Jay noticed one little boy sitting on his bed, crying. Jay tried to find out what was wrong, but the boy just kept crying and wouldn’t talk. “Did you forget something at home?” He shook his head no. “Do you miss your family?” Again, still crying, he shook his head no. After several more failed guesses, the boy was finally able to eke out a few words through the tears: “I don’t know what comes next.”
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately because it names so viscerally and accurately an emotional state that really doesn’t have an adequate name. “Uncertainty” is probably the best we’ve got, but it hardly gets at the depth of what is actually a very real and profound trauma: not knowing what comes next.
We’re programmed, I think, to feel more comfortable when we “know the schedule,” when we can anticipate what tomorrow will bring, when we can figure out what we’ll find when we “get there,” and what we’ll be called upon to do. Not knowing what comes next is deeply distressing, and it’s real. Read More