I’ve been giving some thought to matzah this week as Pesach comes to a close. I imagine many of us have. The proliferation of commentary regarding this humble bread of affliction is fascinating, particularly when we can see our way past the complaints, the crumbs, the seeming monotony.
According to the kabbalists, for example, matzah is all about the bare essentials. It’s about what we find at the core when we strip away the puffiness of our egos — when we lay aside the pretenses that cushion us. Or, consider these words of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. He writes:
“The halachah [Jewish law] underscores the identity of hametz and matzah with the legal requirement that matzah can be made only out of grains that can become hametz — that is, those grains that ferment if mixed with water and allowed to stand. How the human prepares the dough is what decides whether it becomes hametz or matzah. How you view the matzah is what decides whether it is the bread of liberty or servitude.”
So what does all this have to do with us, especially as we mark Passover’s conclusion with our Yizkor prayers? In those moments, more than any others, we too lay aside our inner cushioning. Just as we intentionally disrupt our daily dietary routine during this festival, Yizkor bids us to interrupt our inner routine.
We dare to pull back — exposing our losses, experiencing the depth of our memories. Could it be that, for these moments, we resemble that humble bread of affliction a bit — more absence than substance, liable to crumble at times?
We long for the assurance that as time passes, our grief will soften … and often it does. Then, paradoxically, in the midst of that softening, we may wonder and worry: What if the memories of those we loved fade, without that sharp, daily edge of grief?
For all of us, there are days when it feels like our lives are the sum of our losses. The writers put it perfectly here: “Every love story ends unhappily … what can the rest of us do but hold on for dear life?”
What do we learn … what do we feel, as we allow our festival of Pesach to take us back into our memories, and forward again in faith and hope?
We learn that navigating loss at any stage, and caring for ourselves through the process, sometimes feels like seeking sustenance during the holiday itself. The utensils are different, and almost always less convenient. Some of the tastes are dear and familiar, but many don’t quite pass muster, and make us long for what we’re missing. We are liable to feel cranky, thin-skinned, impatient. It’s only a week, but its teachings are powerful.
When the Israelites made their crossing from slavery in Egypt to freedom on unknown shores, Moses, in keeping with the instruction from long ago, carried the bones of Joseph with him. Those bare bones, from which new narratives and experiences would grow, came with them all. Their history would follow them. The lives of those who had gone before would continue to enrich and inspire them.
Today, amid feeling crumbly and vulnerable, we might also feel the fullness of this image — how the memories of those we have loved and lost can bolster our strength and encourage us to find a quiet sense of faith where we can.
We know, because we retell it each year, that from struggle comes liberation, and after liberation — struggle again. We discover anew that the act of remembering is indeed holy, for we are charged each year with culling empathy for others from our own history. And we find that the more we allow ourselves to feel a part of each other, the more survivable our losses begin to feel.
Just when we most fear that we may indeed break apart like so much matzah under the weight of grief, comes an arm around us, a hand on our shoulder, a voice encouraging us that our time to walk forward will come, and that one way or another, the waters will part. After the words of Psalm 30, weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.