Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum
Excerpt from ‘Power Lines’, Targum Press
The celebration of Pesach is perhaps best symbolized by matzah. The eating of matzah reminds us that the Jews left Egypt in such haste, they did not have time to let their bread dough rise. Yet the Haggadah tells us that matzah is the bread of affliction, bread that our forefathers ate in Egypt. The implication is that matzah was food that the Jews ate during the period of Egyptian servitude. Indeed, commentators note that it was common for slave owners to feed their slaves matzah, because it was both cheap and filling.
Maharal of Prague asks an obvious question: Why do we celebrate freedom and redemption with a food that reminds us of our enslavement? Imagine a man who has been imprisoned for ten years and who has been fed only dry bread and water during his confinement. He is finally released from jail. His family celebrates with a party. Would they serve dry bread and water to express their joy?
We see an important principle here: True victory does not come merely with vanquishing our enemy. In order to overcome the humiliation we have suffered at their hands, and in order to restore our self-esteem, we must parade the vanquished enemy with pride.
This principle helps us understand a statement in the Talmud that in the future (the Messianic era), the princes of Judah will study Torah in the theaters and circuses of Edom (Rome). The places which were used for idolatry, immorality, murder, and everything antithetical to Torah will be used as places in which Torah is taught! Will there not be other, more appropriate locations for Torah study in the Messianic era? But as we have suggested, true victory means more than merely conquering the enemy. In the Messianic era, the conversion of institutions once used to mock and scorn Torah into centers for the spreading of Torah will be the ultimate victory.
During the Middle Ages, Jews throughout Europe were forced to wear hats shaped like long cones. (These hats were the forerunner both of dunce caps and witches’ hats.) They would be mocked and derided by the ordinary folk for their headwear. But rather than allowing themselves to feel mortified by these ludicrous hats, the Jews found that they could enjoy the fashion. They would take great pride in their identifiably Jewish attire. Jews went on to create styles of clothing that were uniquely theirs, even when it was no longer required by law. This strengthened the pride of the Jews. As they were objectified by others, so their subjective group identity gave them greater cohesion and resolve in the face of adversity.
Moshe Prager, in his “Sparks of Glory,” relates an incident from the Holocaust:
Everyone in Lublin feared the Nazi Commander Glabochnik, who was notorious for his sadistic cruelty. One day, he herded all the Jews together to the outskirts of the city. He ordered the Jews to sing and dance while his troops beat them savagely. The Jews fell upon one another, trampling each other. Then one Jew freed himself and began to sing:
“We shall outlive them, outlive them, outlive them, Our Father in Heaven; We shall outlive them, outlive them, outlive them.”
The bruised and bleeding mob slowly picked up the refrain and began to sing. Then, as they disentangled themselves, they began to dance. Glabochnik roared with laughter? until he realized that that the Jews were not accommodating him; they were defeating him. He ordered them to stop, but they ignored him. He panicked and pleaded, but they continued to sing and dance. The SS troops began swinging their clubs and whips and still the singing continued.
Over the course of history the Jews have become expert at turning acts aimed at humiliation into a source of dignity and self-sufficiency. Transforming the symbolic meaning of matzah from one of degradation to one of celebration may have been the first instance of this. We eat matzah with pride – indeed, we experience it as a culinary delight! – impervious to the jibes and ignorance of our enemies. The very food that nourished the Jewish slaves was chosen to be the eternal symbol of our survival. This is both conquest and freedom.