The Mitzvah of Matza
In this week’s Torah reading, Bo, the Israelites get ready to leave Egypt. Following the plague of darkness, they were instructed to prepare a meal, a lamb or kid, וְאָכְל֥וּ אֶת־הַבָּשָׂ֖ר בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּ֑ה צְלִי־אֵ֣שׁ וּמַצּ֔וֹת עַל־מְרֹרִ֖ים יֹאכְלֻֽהוּ׃ (v’achlu et ha basar balaila haze tzli-aish u-matzot al m’rorim yokel-hu, ) “And you will roast it over a fire and eat it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” These are the three things that our great sage, Rabban Gamliel said, are the three things one must mention at the Passover seder in order to for the seder to be “valid.”
Because nothing from this meal may be left over until the morning (any leftovers must be burned up), the people are also told that if their lamb is too large for their family, they are to invite another one to share it. In many respects, this is the first step towards a new creation story, the one of the Jewish people.
The Israelites are about to be redeemed from slavery and brought to freedom in the wilderness; a freedom which allows them to begin to create their own destiny. Eating a communal meal together is a wonderful way to begin to create the camaraderie and community that will be essential moving forward.
I grew up learning that the reason we ate maror, bitter herbs, at the seder was because the Egyptians made our lives bitter with difficult labor and that the matza, the unleavened bread, was because the Israelites had to leave in a hurry and didn’t have time to let the dough rise. But as I read the text, I see God commanding the Israelites to eat this bread as part of their meal, but without giving a reason. That comes later.
In a quoting a Midrashic work called the Mikhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Rashi says, “Rabbi Josiah said, do not read (Ex. 12:17) as U-sh’marten et ha matzot (and you shall watch over the matzot (מצות) but as “U-sh’martem et ha
(מצות). Without vowels, they’re spelled the same way. Even without yeast, flour and water, left long enough, will become leavened. If we wait too long to perform a mitzvah, we might not get around to it. The commandment itself becomes “leavened,” leading Rabbi Josiah to say, “If a commandment comes to your hand, perform it immediately.”
Whether we translate the word mitzvah as “commandment” or “good deed,” Sometimes we wait too long before we get around to it. We’re human. We wait too long to make a phone call, take care of a medical problem, take a trip or learn a new skill. At any age, but especially as we get older, that waiting takes up a larger percentage of our time–perhaps “leavening” fits with the adage that “tasks expand to fill the time available.”
As Psalm 90 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” May we be blessed to take this to heart.