Pesach, Matzah, Maror
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Rabban Gamliel used to say: “Whoever does not discuss the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty, namely: Pesach (the Pesach sacrifice); Matzah (the unleavened bread); Maror (the bitter herbs).”
Key to fulfilling our duty
Rabban Gamliel asserts that without speaking about the korban pesach, matzah and maror, one does not fulfill his obligation. Why is speaking about these objects so important?
The answer becomes clear when we appreciate the passage that follows Rabban Gamliel’s teaching in the Haggadah: “Bechol dor va’dor,” “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt…” This paragraph describes the obligation to not only recount the story of the Exodus, but to see oneself as having personally left Egypt.
By discussing the korban pesach, matzah and maror, we are able to transcend time and feel as if we are experiencing the Exodus ourselves. They are tangible mitzvot that allow us to not only talk about the Exodus, but to re-experience it ourselves.
The korban pesach commemorates Hashem’s having been “posei’ach” over the homes of the Jewish people. The verb posei’ach is generally translated as “skipping over” (Melachim I 11:21), which is why the name of the holiday is translated as “Passover.”
This makes sense according to the way the Haggadah presents the plague of the firstborn – that it was Hashem Who personally passed through Egypt to kill them.
Sefer Shemot (12:23), however, describes a mashchit, a “destroyer,” as the one who did the killing and whom Hashem prevented from entering the Jewish homes. If so, it would make sense to translate the word posei’ach as ‘protected’ (Yishayahu 31:5), meaning Hashem protected the Jewish homes from the mashchit who was killing the Egyptian firstborn sons.
Rabban Gamiliel explains that the matzah commemorates our speedy departure from Egypt. The problem, however, is that the people were commanded to eat matzah while they were still in Egypt, before the departure occurred! Avudraham learns from here that matzah has a second significance – it is the lechem oni, the “bread of poverty” that reminds us of our enslavement.
Tosafot explain that the “poverty” facet of matzah dictates its physical makeup. This is why the matzah is made of simple flour and water, and why we eat broken pieces at the Seder. At the same time, the “freedom” facet of matzah is expressed by eating the matzah while leaning comfortably. We take an objective symbol of slavery and eat it as free men.
It is interesting that the matzah commemorates seemingly contradictory parts of the narrative. The message is that both slavery and redemption are critical aspects of the story and of Hashem’s plan for Am Yisrael. As Rav Yissocher Frand writes: “The message in this is that in order to be a free person, we do not need anything. If a person specifically needs “bread” as opposed to matzah to consider himself free, then he is not a free person. A person who needs the physical pleasure of bread to give him his sense of freedom is not really free. Rather, he is a slave to his physical needs. The Master of the Universe emphasizes that freedom has nothing to do with externals. It is entirely a phenomenon of one’s internal awareness. I can eat the same piece of matzah that I ate as a slave and also eat it now as a free person. This is true freedom” (Matzah: The Bread of Affliction and the Bread of Redemption).
Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the author of the Sefat Emet (Pesach 5653), explains that we eat maror and remember the bitterness of our slavery in order to emphasize that the bitterness was also part of Hashem’s plan. Throughout the sefer, Rav Alter explains that exile, though deeply painful, was ultimately beneficial to Am Yisrael. It helped us enter into the covenant with Hashem (Pesach 5632), and the bitter suffering strengthened us as a people and gave us the ability to survive similar situations in the future (Pesach 5647).
Rav Kook (Ma’amar HaDor, 107) explains that the extreme bitterness of the slavery demonstrated that our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt was unnatural and ensured that we would one day be free. A nation that is disgusted with its present state and refuses to be reconciled with its current situation has the potential to change its destiny. Historically, the Jewish people refused to reconcile with exile – which was the foundation for our people’s miraculous return to Eretz Yisrael after almost 2,000 years.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.