Pesach is known biblically as “The festival of Matzo,” so let’s face it, matzo is intrinsically connected with the festival, love it or hate it. Much debate exists among rabbinic scholars as to whether the obligation to partake in matzo is unique to the sedarim or to the entire festival. There a number of positions on this idea throughout the lay community as well, some of us eating matzo for the whole time, others eating it while they partake in other forms of hametz, and others who rid themselves of matzo following the seder altogether.
For the past couple of days I’ve heard and been wished an interesting little quip in relation to Pesach, “Have a great holiday, don’t eat too much matzo!” Each time I hear this I cannot help but to get into a ten-minute debate with myself over the “ok-ness” of the idea of “not eating too much matzo.” Can one really eat too much matzo on a holiday that revolves around it? Can we have Hannukah without a menorah? Yom Kippor without fasting? The simple answer, of course, is no. And when thinking about how valuable and important this strange unleavened bread has been to the Jewish people for millennia, that “no” has an even greater resonance.
I spent my last Pesach with the once-glorious community of Krakow. This community, which today numbers less than 220 Jews, numbered over 60,000 at the eve of the Second World War, more than 25% of the population. Our friends, brothers and sisters of Krakow have continued to thrive despite the numerous hardships placed upon them since the end of the Holocaust,. They have one operating shul, a highly limited supply of kosher food sent from just as limited a supply in Warsaw. My companions and I, who settled down in Kazimierz, brought with us lots of goodies from Israel, including boxes and boxes of highly valuable shmura matzo.
Being in a place where resources are limited will always make one quite thankful for what one has. We knew we had done well when a senior member of the community, a man who had lived through the ghetto (the one portrayed in Schindler’s List) thanked us for the packages we brought, saying, “no matter how many years I’ve been here, and no matter how long I stay here, I am and will continuously be touched by the matzos you bring. I cannot remember the last time we had the opportunity to make shmura here in Krakow.”
The vast majority of the Krakow community is not religiously observant; indeed, half of the community isn’t even recognized as Jewish according to Jewish law. Despite this, every person we met thanked us for the gift of the premium matzo that we brought with us, so grateful for the quality Kosher for Pesach snacks and foods we brought. The community, despite however they may live religiously, still recognized the uniqueness and special nature of the matzo, partaking in it until the very end, the seudas ha-mashiach.
It was during this last meal that a survivor told us a story that took place during Pesach 1944. Pesach was quickly approaching and rumors were going throughout the camp that a few of the men were planning to bake matzos and hold a makeshift seder. Naturally, it didn’t take very long for this rumor to reach the ears of the SS who began an investigation. They knew that if the Jews were able to partake in the matzo and have a seder that it would greatly lift their spirits, and breaking the spirit was the primary goal of the SS. These few men risked their lives in order to bake the matzos in order that at the very least, some prisoners would be able to fulfill the mitzvah of eating the matzo. In the end they were successful, and the seder was held. Shortly thereafter, the men who had baked the matzo were discovered and taken away, never to be heard from again. Thanks to their courage, people got to fulfill this mitzvah; these men indeed laid down their own lives so that others could fulfill it.
So when I’m told, “don’t eat too much matzo!” I can’t help but shudder; matzo is what we call, “the bread of freedom”. Matzo is what reminds me of the bitter affliction borne upon us in Egypt, borne upon us in Poland and throughout the entire world. This Wednesday we will all be partaking in the mitzvah, partaking in the reenactment of freedom. I don’t think freedom is something to be shunned. Great men and women before me gave everything for the opportunity to eat matzo, and this Pesach I urge you too, to remember why we are eating matzo this week.
WISHING EVERYONE AN AMAZING, BEAUTIFUL, AND MEANINGFUL PESACH, CHAG SAMEACH!