Monday, April 25, 2016

Spiritual Lessons from Breaking the Middle Matzah During a Seder

The Passover seder is an intricate ritual feast that has multiple steps, each of which could be analyzed separately. The fact that each phase of the seder can be analyzed in-depth shows just how much meaning the Passover seder can have. There is one part of the seder I would like to take a look at today, both because it doesn't merit a blessing (ברכה) and because it happens so quickly, and that is the breaking of the middle matzah, also known as yachatz (יחץ). The middle matzah is broken into two pieces. The smaller piece remains on the table, while the larger piece is hidden for the afikomen stage later. During Shabbat and most other holidays, there are two loaves of bread known as challah. During this time of the year, there are three pieces of matzah on the table. After saying the blessing over the bitter vegetable that is dipped in salt water (known as karpas), we uncover the matzahs and break the middle one in yachatz. This short segue leads into the maggid (מגיד), the telling of the story of Passover. What lessons can we glean from breaking the middle matzah?

  1. The poor man's bread. The traditional answer to this question comes from the Talmud (Pesachim 115b), in which the Talmud refers to matzah as "the poor man's bread" (לחם עוני). The Talmud states that "just as the poor person eats 'in pieces,' so too do we eat in pieces."  Breaking food and saving part of it for later is a sign of poverty. If part of a successful seder is reliving the experience of slavery and redemption, we need to have at least an inkling of what it is like to be poor, which is something the breaking of the middle matzah is supposed to trigger (Rashi).
  2. Gratitude and Obligation to Help Others. The idea of empathizing with the poor segues into my second point. R. Shimon Apisdorf says that "quite often, our ability to give and to share is the product of a skewed picture of reality. Many of our limitations are only perceived limitations." We are constantly bombarded with advertisements and a need to consume material goods. This is not to say that poverty is non-existent or we shouldn't be mindful of it, but rather that such a drive towards consuming more material goods skews our perception of what we do have. This is reinforced by what the Haggadah's seemingly counterintuitive statement immediately after we break the middle matzah: "Let all those are hungry come and eat!" Even if times are rough, the Passover seder teaches us that we still have an obligation to help others. If this is true in times of scarcity, how much more true it is in times of plenty! Redemption, at least in part, is being satisfied with what one [materially] has. R. Shimon Apisdorf brings up scarcity in the context of material goods, but I think it could also be applied to non-material resources, such as taking the time to help a stranger. If we take inventory of how we can [better] allocate our time, money, and other resources, we'll find that we have more than we realized at first glance.  
  3. Thinking in the long-term. When dealing with money, we ask ourselves whether we should spend our money now for immediate benefit or if we should forego spending now in order to derive some benefit in the future. A similar concept can be applied here. Part of the Passover story is freedom from Egyptian slavery. But that's not the entire story. It's about freedom to do something with your life, and in a traditionally Jewish context, as R. Shraga Simmons points out, that means "Torah and mitzvahs." R. Shimon Schwab believed that the smaller piece represents this world (העולם הזה), and the larger piece is the World to Come (העולם הבא).  Alternatively, that larger piece could symbolize messianic redemption. Even in a non-Jewish or non-religious context, there are scenarios in which we have to postpone something in order to reach a larger goal (R. Shlomo Buxbaum). Freedom to do we want provides us more latitude than we had as slaves, but to be able to exercise the freedom to not do something paradoxically expands one's options. That is what the yachatz could represent: using that freedom with a long-term goal in mind means being able to derive a long-term benefit, even if that means foregoing something in the short-term.  
  4. Not embarrassing others. The Vilna Ga'on opines that we break the matzah to pique one's curiosity. But why hide it afterwards? The Vilna Ga'on continues by saying that much like we cover up the challah in order to embarrassment, so too do we cover up the afikomen to teach in order to not "embarrass" it in front of the other pieces of matzah, thereby teaching us a lesson about not embarrassing other people.  
  5. Brokenness in our lives. This was actually a concept that was discussed at length when I attended a second-night seder last year, and it happens to be my favorite interpretation. As R. Harold Schulweis brings up, "Brokenness is a symbol of incompletion. Life is not whole. The Passover itself is not complete." The only one who could be truly whole is G-d because He is Infinite Oneness. It's not a bad thing that we cannot be completely whole because it means there is always room to grow. The other silver lining to this brokenness is that we can break out of our own versions of being enslaved in Egypt. While brokenness is part of entering the Passover seder, it's not how it ends. The ultimate message is one of redemption, of being able to transcend one's travails to reach a higher goal even when brokenness exists in our lives. We realize that the broken matzah symbolizes that there are parts of us undiscovered, and figuring out what could potentially make us feel whole is a process. The broken matzah reminds us that we don't have as much of a handle on life as we think we do, but within the greater context of the Passover narrative, we can take what we have been given in order to become greater human beings than when we started.  

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