Open the Door to ALL: The Real Meaning of “Matzah”

The Halachma Anya invites others to join in the Passover meal. This ritual is meaningless unless we truly open our doors throughout the year to end injustice, poverty, hatred, and war throughout our world.

Each year we begin our Passover Seder with an ancient Aramaic saying, as we break one of the three ritual matzot (plural of “matzah”) in half.

We hold up one-half of the middle pieces of matza and we clearly say:

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are needy, come and celebrate Passover with us. The hour has come, now we are here. Next year, may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year, may we be truly free.

And then we open our front door and and invite in all who are in need of a place to celebrate Passover, all who need a place to eat, all who are alone, or lonely, lost or wandering.

Usually, we do this as a ritual act: we break the middle matzah, recite the ancient words by rote, and open the door. We peer into the darkness and then hastily close the door again and continue with the rest of the rituals.

But what does it truly mean to hold up our “bread of affliction” and to OPEN OUR DOOR to others?

I think now is the time to transform this symbolic ritual into reality, to take the lessons from our Passover tables and turn them into living reality, so that next year, when we say at the end of “Ha lachma anya…next year may we truly be free.” These words will be filled with deep meaning because we have worked hard to make them so.

I write this on the day of Erev Pesach, the week that Syria used poisonous gas killing so many innocent citizens, in a civil war that has been raging for years? Where are our “Open Doors” to those Syrian refugees who need to to be treated as humans, and not as pawns in some bizarre game of “not welcome through my door.”

Where are our Open Doors to those who are starving in parts of Africa because we lack the intelligence and have too much red tape to adequately distribute food and water in a just and equitable manner?

Where are our Open Doors to those who are suffering in silence from Mental Illness or other illness afraid of what our current administration in Washington is going to do to our Health Care system?

Where are our Open Doors to those who are aging and might not have enough resources to enable them to live long lives filled with dignity, honor and as full-functioning humans?

Where are the Open Doors to our educators and parents and students who have invested so much in our public school system, to our Nationally Funded Arts programs which give our country more than just culture, but breadth and depth?

Where are the Open Doors to Women who deserve and demand a right to make our own decisions about what happens with our bodies?

Where are the Open Doors to members of the LBGTQ+ community who are being violated and having their long-fought-for rights stripped as we speak?

We have so many doors that are either closed or being threatened with closing.

This Passover — this Pesach — our Ha Lachma Anya prayer takes on especially significant meaning.

I invite you to open your door. Open it wide! As you break the middle matzah, think about how you find ways to symbolically open other doors throughout the coming year, how we can break down barriers, open doors to peace and understanding, justice and freedom for all.

One of my favorite quotes this time of year is from Morris Joseph. He said: “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.”

Let’s knock down the closed doors of injustice, hatred, racism, xenophobia, poverty, war, mistruths, and so much more.

This year, not all are free. Next year, may we open the doors so that all may join us in freedom at our Pesach tables, no matter where we celebrate

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Passover: Liberty and Freedom are the Inalienable Rights of Every Human Being

On Pesach (Passover), we celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

We retell the story of the Exodus each year to remind ourselves that the gift of freedom comes with great responsibility: the responsibility to take care of others. Our freedom means we have the responsibility to work to free those who are still bound by the shackles of poverty, war, famine, hatred, racism…whatever issues are still plaguing our world.

 “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” (Morris Joseph)

 During my 26 years in the rabbinate, I have been blessed with many different seder experiences that exemplify this notion of “liberty” and “freedom”. Not long after Glasnost and Perestroika, I went to the Former Soviet Union for two years with congregants during Pesach. We brought in much needed medical supplies, taught about Pesach and led Pesach seders in Minsk, Vitebsk, Gomel and Mogilev (all in Belarus). After the first seder, one woman approached us with tears streaming down her face, “I am 40 years old and this is my first Pesach seder. Thank you!” Up until then, the Jewish community had not been allowed to celebrate, and there was no one who knew the rituals.

This year, on the eve of the first seder, I led a seder at an Assisted Living facility at noon for about 30 Jewish residents, their families and some of their non-Jewish residents who wanted to learn more about our holiday.

I met George, who moved into the facility two months ago. George is a Holocaust survivor, the only member of his family to be liberated from Auschwitz. He showed me his number tattooed on his forearm and briefly shared with me his story of captivity, liberation and survival.

He came to live in the Assisted Living facility two months ago because he outlived all his friends and was no longer able to get out and about. He stayed home by himself all day and all night. His children worried about him. He was isolated, lonely and depressed. So his children wanted to find a place for him where he would be safe, where he would be surrounded by other people and where he would find stimulation and activity.

Since moving into the facility, he feels a new sense of “liberation”. He told me he loves living there. He has made friends. He has a new lease on life, he has activities to keep him busy every day, people with whom to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loves playing cards and bingo. He was smiling from ear-to-ear.

Sometimes LIBERATION and FREEDOM are “big concepts” – how to save the world from a nuclear Iran, how to stop human trafficking, how to end poverty and war.

But what I saw this afternoon, was that “liberation” and “freedom” are concepts that affect each and every one of us personally. George was enslaved in the shackles of loneliness and isolation. He had almost given up on life. After the Holocaust, he experienced LIBERATION and FREEDOM and was able to build a beautiful life in the United States.

And now, once again, he is experiencing a different kind of “liberation” and “freedom” – a personal sense of “joie de vivre” that enables him to live each day to its fullest with meaning and purpose. He told me that Pesach this year was particularly meaningful to him and he was so glad to celebrate it with his new friends.

 This Pesach, our “Festival of Freedom,” I hope we all can do our part to make “liberation” and “freedom” lasting realities, both on the larger scale world-wide and personally, for our friends and family.

I wish you and all your loved ones a sweet, wonderful and meaningful holiday. Next year, may we all celebrate in peace, liberty and freedom.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Pesach!

An Anchor in Troubled Times

When I lived in Toronto, I often took my out-of-town guests to Niagara Falls for the day. It was a beautiful drive. We’d wind our way through the wine district, eat a leisurely lunch at one of the lovely restaurants at a winery, spend time in Niagara-on-the-Lake and of course, visit the magnificent Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls - The Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Falls)
Niagara Falls – The Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Falls)

No matter how many times I’ve been to Niagara Falls, their grandeur and majesty still leaves me in awe. One of the most spectacular things to do, is to walk under the caves on the Canadian side of the Falls. You can actually walk right under the Falls themselves and touch them. It is breath-taking!

Then we would usually drive along the Niagara River, to see the Floral Clock. And we would observe the violent rapids just upstream of the Falls, where the Niagara River suddenly becomes turbulent.

Niagara River Rapids
Niagara River Rapids

As you travel farther north along the river, the river’s current flows more gently and boats are able to navigate more easily.

On one of my trips, as we crossed over a pedestrian walk-way that spans the river. I noticed a sign posted on this bridge that I had never noticed before – a warning sign for all boaters. “DO YOU HAVE AN ANCHOR?” the sign reads in big block letters, followed by: “DO YOU KNOW HOW TO USE IT?”

The gentle calm of the river at this point gives no indication of what lies up ahead. But if boaters are prepared, they can safely navigate the turbulent waters.

When I reflect on the events that took place in Overland Park, Kansas, or in the Ukraine, or in other parts of the world right now, it seems to me that the Jewish people have been thrust into turbulent waters. How do we respond to these difficult events? How do we show these communities that their safety and well-being are our concerns as well, while at the same time, taking care of our own Jewish communities here at home?

Where do we find our anchor that will keep us rooted safely and securely no matter what type of turbulence life sends our way?

We can find some of our answers in our Passover story. Our Passover story is all about finding our “anchor” in the midst of oppression and exile. It’s about finding a way to wholeness and freedom. However, it takes the work of many to accomplish this. It takes perseverance and steadfastness. It takes the community joining together to rally against the yoke of evil.

One metaphor which I like to use is the Elijah cup which we place on our Seder table. Elijah represents hope for the future, the Messianic age when the world shall live in peace and harmony. No more hatred, no more violence. Traditionally, we start with a full cup of wine, open the door for Elijah, and Elijah is supposed to visit every home on the first two nights of Pesach (Passover.)

Elijah's Cup for the Seder
Elijah’s Cup for the Seder

At my Seder, I begin with an empty Elijah cup. Prior to opening the door for Elijah, we pass the cup to every person. Everyone pours some of his or her wine into the cup, as they say one thing they hope to do over the coming year to make the world a better place. By the time the cup goes around the table, Elijah’s cup is full. We, then, are the ones who will actually be responsible for bringing about redemption to our world.

Symbolically, this shows that if we each do our part, we ARE ABLE to bring our world to a state of perfection and wholeness.

So who is our anchor in troubled times? WE are our anchors.

Or, to paraphrase Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810. He was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov – and was one of the most creative, influential and profound of the Chassidic masters and the founder of the Bratslover Chasidic sect.) – to be an anchor, to make this world a better place, you need to reach in three directions: inward, outward and up. You need to reach inward to find the best of yourself; you need to reach outward toward your community; and finally you need to reach up to God. If we reach in all three directions, we will be able to find wholeness and peace, and then truly, we will have found our anchor.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Let All Who Are Hungry, Come and Eat…”

When I was growing up, you could buy two kinds of matzah in the store: plain or egg.

Today, the grocery store shelves are overflowing with a plethora of varieties of matzah :

Plain, egg, onion, spelt, oat, gluten-free, tea matzah, whole wheat, whole wheat and bran, matzah “sticks”, English matzah, Israeli matzah, chocolate covered matzah, small size matzah crackers (and all of the varieties exist in the crackers as well).

Some of the different varieties of matzah available today
Some of the different varieties of matzah available today

It can seem overwhelming looking at all the different types of matzah lining the shelves at the grocery store.

And don’t forget about buying matzah meal, cake meal and matzah farfel. They also come in “original”, whole grain and now gluten free. Want some matzah Panko crumbs? Plain or flavoured? Regular or gluten-free? They are all readily available.

Matzah has come a long way from its biblical and historical origins.

Matzah was originally the “bread of affliction”. In Exodus 12:8, the ancient Israelites ate unleavened bread as they hastily departed Egypt on their way to freedom. They had no time to bake bread and let it rise, so they quickly mixed some flour and water and made flat bread. A type of bread which would bake quickly and not spoil as they travelled.

Ha lachma anya

Di achalu avatanya b’arah

d’Mitzrayim… (Passover Haggada)

“This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.”

With these ancient Aramaic words, we break one of the symbolic pieces of matzah on the Seder table and our Pesach (Passover) seder becomes an evening of community, story-telling and hospitality.

By breaking a piece of matzah in half and opening our front door, we invite all those who have no where to celebrate and join us at our Seder tables. We invite all those who are hungry, to celebrate Passover along side our own families.

Thus matzah comes to symbolize two things:

  • the affliction and suffering our ancestors suffered as slaves in Egypt;
  • freedom, hospitality and welcoming. Matzah was eaten by people on the cusp of becoming free. We now use it to welcome others to our homes during this special time.

The dual nature of matzah is not lost on us. Matzah is hard and crumbly. It can get stuck in our throats. Yet, we have the ability to transform it into something edible and delicious. (Ever had caramel matzah crunch, aka, matzah “crack?”, or a delicious blueberry matzah brei for breakfast, or just plain matzah with fresh butter and strawberry preserves?)

We find that when we gather together with friends, family and community and share food and celebration, the bonds we form can help lighten any burden we bear. When we gather together as community, we can find a way to alleviate the suffering of others. There is power, strength and healing in community. Matzah thus reminds us of the dual nature of life: slavery and freedom, hunger and hospitality.

Matzah is made from only two ingredients: flour and water. It mixes together and bakes up quickly. And it lasts a long time without going bad. It is a simple food. Not complicated.

It should be a simple thing for us to reach out to others in friendship and love, to open our doors, our homes and our hearts. It should be easy and not complicated – like matzah.

So as you do your Pesach shopping this year, and contemplate which type of matzah you will bring home, think about how to make the ancient words of “Ha lach ma anya” come alive by opening your home and your heart to others this Pesach.

Chag Pesach Sameach! A happy and healthy Passover to you and your family!

Click on the links below for some of my favourite Passover recipes:

Sharon’s Sweet and Spicy Mixed Nuts

Susie Fishbein’s Tri-Color Matzah Balls

Betsy Stone’s Carrot Kugel/Carrot Muffins

Sue Devor’s Decadent Flourless Chocolate Torte

Grain-Free/Gluten-Free Blondies