March 22, Fifth Sunday of Lent
Exodus 12:14-20; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8
The Rabbi of Berditchev understood that the Jews are a special people, perhaps better than most.
One year, the morning before Passover would begin, the Rabbi asked that six silken scarves and six loaves of bread be brought to him at once. People searched the whole town and returned with six scarves, but not one loaf of bread.
The Rabbi held the scarves in his hand and said: “Master of the Universe, the czar forbids the importing of the scarves. He has soldiers and policemen to help enforce this law. But, here are the scarves, somehow smuggled across the border. Master of the Universe, three thousand years ago You commanded Your children not to bring bread into the house on Passover. You have no soldiers or policemen, yet there is no bread to be found in all of Berditchev. Truly, Your children ARE special!”
Probably the most significant observance of Passover is avoiding bread and all forms of leaven throughout the eight-day holiday. The Torah even names this festival the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” To be completely unleavened for eight days, in this day and age, requires a very exacting and detailed process. First, every speck of leaven must be removed from the house. The process of cleaning the home of all leaven in preparation for Passover is an enormous task. To do it right, you must prepare for several weeks and spend several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of your stove and refrigerator with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come in contact with food with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc., etc. After the cleaning is completed, the morning before the Seder, there is a festive search of the house for leaven, and any remaining leaven is burned. Furthermore, in the strictest Jewish homes, they are not allowed even to own leaven or to derive any benefit from it during the holiday. So no McDonald’s, Subway, or even Starbuck’s corporate earnings for eight days! Leavened products may not be fed to pets or livestock. All leaven, including utensils used to cook it must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew (usually with arrangements to repurchase them after the holiday). Just imagine how much work this is!
The only grain product eaten by Jews during Passover is called Matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly – dough which stands for more than 18 minutes before it is fully baked becomes “leaven.” The logic is that, once wet, the microorganisms in the environment get to work very quickly beginning the fermentation process, which turns flour into sugars and causes dough to bubble and rise. Lest you feel sorry for the Jewish people and their diet during Passover, rest assured, they have come up with many inventive ways to use matzah – from soups to cakes – which are part of the Passover celebration. One Jewish teacher quips about Passover:, “Lotsa Matzah!”
Eating Matzah is full of both historic and symbolic meaning. The first thing to understand is the historic reference, as its symbolism stems from the story. Eating unleavened bread commemorates the fact that the Hebrews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. In the same way Jews today encourage each other to do the good thing presented to them, right away, not waiting for everything to be perfect. Their sages teach that when an opportunity to do good comes your way, do not allow it to ferment, to become leaven, but do it quickly. There is an urgency in the Passover which is intended to filter into life everyday. Do the good presented you now. Don’t wait for the leaven of ordinary life – like waiting for your bread to rise – keeps you from stepping out into the extraordinary.
You can sense Paul’s impatience with the Corinthians 5. He uses the Passover imagery of unleavened bread to urge the church of Corinth to get rid of all the pride-leaven which is bubbling up in their midst. It is quickly spoiling the whole community.
His concern also draws on the other main symbolic meaning of leaven. Leaven is an image of impurity, an outside element that gets in and changes the nature of the dough. The rabbis teach that leaven symbolizes how the pressures of the world get into the community of God’s people and quickly change it into something God did not intend. It is actually a natural, expected process. But the Feast of Unleavened Bread is a moment to pause, and clean out the world’s pressures, and open oneself to God alone. Removing all leaven, if only for eight days, instills in the people a caution, an awareness of destructive influences for the rest of the year. It builds into their lives the need to get back to the basics of being God’s people.
In Corinth, the problem is that they have let pride get into their community and it is leavening the whole church – and it is destroying their nature as the body of Christ. Leaven is the perfect illustration, as its nature is to puff up the flour into bread. In humans, being puffed up is to be arrogant and conceited. Paul is tapping into his rabbinic training here. The lessons of Passover are for the church, too. Pride will ruin the church. Rather, be like matzah, the flat, unleavened bread, which represents total humility. Get rid of the leaven of pride and serve each other in humility. Sounds like Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and telling them to do the same for each other.
One of the three Matzah on the Seder table is ceremonially broken early in the Passover meal, saying, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt….”
Matzah has a double meaning in the Passover. First, it is the bread of affliction, the food of slaves. The bread of the slaves is thin and brittle. It took very little time to bake and very little time to eat, and so allowed the task-masters to get the maximum working time from the slaves.
But ironically, the Hebrews not only ate matzah while they were slaves. After the death of the first-born Egyptian children, the Egyptians were so anxious to drive the Hebrews out of Egypt that the people did not have time to bake proper bread for their journey. Ironically, on the way out of Egypt into freedom, they found themselves eating the same matzah bread that they had eaten during the years of slavery. This time, however, it was the bread of freedom.
And here is the lesson for us. Matzah, the bread of affliction, is also a symbol of freedom. How can this be? We tend to see servanthood and freedom as opposites. But that is not quite the way the Hebrews understood it. Their concept of freedom is more finely nuanced. Our American concept of freedom is all about “freedom from.” Our patriot founders wanted freedom from British rule. The way the story has been told to us through the Fourth of July stories, it is all about fighting for our rights, and winning them, for self-determination. We have come to understand freedom in this limited sense as freedom from anyone else telling us what to do or what is best for us. There is much more to the American story of independence, but we don’t have a Passover ritual to remind us that our independence is a calling to serve.
The Jews understand that if the people had left Egypt, but not accepted the covenant at Sinai, it would have achieved only liberation – that is, mere release from bondage – but it would not have achieved true freedom. For Judaism, the only true freedom comes with the yoke of the Torah – the only true freedom is to serve God.
Think about it – literal independence is an illusion. Maybe Bob Dylan got it right: “You gotta’ serve somebody!,” as his song goes. Actually, much of our choosing moves us from one slavery to another. Think of the young person who rebels from his parents’ control, in order to join a gang – accepting another law, another control. Or, think how often the battered spouse, leaves the shelter in order to return to her abuser. Or how many spouses leave a marriage for another lover, and then find themselves in the same unhealthy situation. We do it all the time! Leave one slavery for another. Think about the choice of slaveries we have today – We can be enslaved to the views of television, radio or print news, we can become slaves to our electronic devices, we can become slaves to our bodies – always trying to shape them, starve them, cuddle them, as suits our yearning of the moment. We become slaves to the money we hold as a stewardship for good when we see it as our own personal free choice.
It is easier to follow another slavery than to think for ourselves. And maybe, all we really get to choose is which master to follow. That is what the Hebrews did when they walked out of Egypt. They chose God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The unleavened bread is a reminder that the world’s slaveries are always around us trying to corrupt our nature as God’s people. But we can still toss out the leaven, choose whom we serve. This is what Passover celebrates.
Yes, Passover celebrates freedom – freedom for God, for each other, for good. Not freedom from law, or from other human limitations.
Listen to the blessing over the matzah:
“We praise You, O God, Sovereign of Existence, Who hallows our lives with commandments, Who has commanded us regarding the eating of matzah.”
God hallows our lives by the commandments. We are made free, set apart from the ways of the world, through the ways of God we follow, through the narrow way Jesus invited his followers to follow. It is a demanding way. I was reading a few comments on the Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel and he seemed to capture what it means to be free – Passover free! It is about setting aside time NOT to use the instruments of power we have at hand; it is a time to choose NOT to distract our minds with entertainment; it is a time when we are free NOT to go to work, or go shopping, or watch a sports event, or do anything our society tells us is important. Instead, it is a day to be amazed.
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
This is to be Passover free.