Matzah is a focal point of the Passover Seder and the Haggadah; it is one of the universally recognized Jewish symbols and most popularly observed Mitzvot. Although much has been written in all of the eras of Jewish literature about the meaning of this commandment, the Torah does no more than allude to the reason for the mitzvah. In Parashat Bo, the Torah relates that the Jews “baked the dough that they brought out of Egypt as Matzos, because it did not rise since they were expelled fromEgyptand couldn’t delay [long enough for it to rise].” The Haggadah, on the other hand, addresses the reason for the Mitzvah more directly and can lead us to a basic understanding of the message of Matzah.
In the Haggadah, Rabban Gamliel identifies Matzah as one of the three things that must be discussed at the Seder. That passage of the Haggadah is actually excerpted from a Mishnah in tractate Pesachim that has a few variant versions of what constitutes the correct text. Our standard text of the Mishnah, which does not match the version that appears in our Haggadah, is very simple; it says that we eat Matzah – because our ancestors were redeemed fromEgypt. This text implies that the rationale behind the mitzvah of Matzah is that since our ancestors ate Matzah when they were redeemed, we do too to commemorate that redemption. The Mishnah text of Maimonidies (1135 – 1204) and Rabeinu Asher (1259 – 1327), which is nearly identical to the text that made its way into our Haggadot, has a slightly different emphasis. One difference is that it quotes the verse mentioned above that explains that there was no time for the bread to rise. More significant, thought, is that it also incorporates the same point, that we left Egypt with extreme haste and suddenness, into the reason that it gives about why we eat Matzah. According this text, Matzah doesn’t just generally remind us of the Exodus. It reminds us of and emphasizes one particular aspect of the Exodus, which is that it happened suddenly and quickly. According to this version, another step must be clarified. Why, in Rabban Gamliel’s explanation of the Mitzvah of Matzah, does this particular aspect of the Exodus merit special attention? What is the message of the haste with which we left Egypt?
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the fact that the Jews didn’t slowly depart fromEgyptin an unrushed fashion actually has very significant import. If they didn’t leave so suddenly, the Exodus could have been mistaken as a sort of natural accomplishment or development. After a few decades had passed, an explanation might develop that would attribute the Jews’ gradual departure as the result of a revolt or a war that the Jews had waged against their oppressors and had eventually won. For this reason, the Almighty took the people out quickly and suddenly, to unquestionably demonstrate the miraculous nature of the Exodus.
Matzah should definitely remind us of the general messages of the Exodus and its redemption, as reflected in the explanation of Matzah that appears in the standard Mishnah text. But according to the Haggadah’s version of Rabban Gamliel’s teaching (which is based on Maimonidies’ and R. Asher’s variant Mishnah text), Matzah represents an additional basic Jewish message as well. It is easy and natural to look at the events of our life as happenstance. Once in a while we may notice that seemingly unrelated and disconnected things fit together too well and we get a sense that they are actually part of a plan. Matzah can teach us and remind us, in addition to its other lessons, that a primary part of our being Jewish is that we must be the nation and the people that excels in habituating ourselves to look at the world in a special and unique way. One of our most prominent and ancient symbols demands that we learn how to look for the hand of the Almighty in everything – in the events of our particular lives and in the events of the world around us.