Passover – The Child and the Sage

Originally published in “The Seven Lights” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Josy Eisenber

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (A.S.): The matzah eaten by the Israelites in Egypt has a dual meaning, as is clearly demonstrated by the Haggadah ritual.  On the one hand, it is the symbol of flight and powerlessness.  The dough prepared for the Exodus did not have enough time to rise, because the Israelites had to leave Egypt in haste.  On the other hand, the Israelites were instructed to eat matzah on the evening of Passover to accompany the Passover lamb.  “They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:8).  We are commanded to eat matzah although we eat bread the rest of the year and have apparently reached a higher level of knowledge.  One of the basic features of Jewish existence, both on the personal level and on the level of collective history, is that there is no possible beginning without a return to the roots of faith, to a state of pure knowledge free of all rationalization.  The rest is only construction, superstructure, and embellishment.  The primary meaning of eating matzah is the return to the starting point.  This return is necessary even when I have “eaten” more sophisticated nourishment.

Josy Eisenberg (J.E.): Precisely because that is what I eat all year long.  We have seen that Jewish tradition views the polarity between leavened and unleavened bread in a moral light.  Leavened bread, our daily bread, represents all artificial forms of expansion, pride, and unchecked growth.  Matzah, on the other hand, expresses the return to simplicity.  This is, in fact, what Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi says:

“But first we must understand the concepts of hametz and matzah.  Hametz rises and inflates itself and has a taste.  Matzah does not rise and self-inflate, and has no taste at all; as our Sages rule, ‘One who swallows matzah [whole], has fulfilled the obligation [of eating matzah on Passover].’  So, too, in man’s service of God, matzah is the element of self-abnegation.  This was the quality of the first matzah, which the Israelites ate before midnight – the ‘arousal from below’ through ‘nullify your will [before His]’…As is known, pride is the progenitor of all profanities, the source of all lusts. Thus through the quality of ‘nullify your will’ one achieves self-conquest (itkafia), and as it is written ‘and you shall eliminate the evil [from within you.]'”

A.S.: The important point here is not the moral point of view, although it is edifying.  What is important is the basic fact of eating matzah, if we want a renewal and to leave Egypt.

J.E.: Hasidism says that through our limitations, we are always prisoners of “our own Egypt.”

A.S.: We need to repeat the leap that initiated our history and become the child that we were in Egypt.  In this way we start the cycle of knowledge and ignorance over again.  There are two ways of saying, “I don’t know.”  The child opens his eyes wide with astonishment at the world and says, “I don’t know.”  The individual who has studied extensively, who knows a great deal, who “knows everything,” suddenly finds himself facing a vast ocean of unknowns that a child could not even begin to imagine.  There, once again, he must say, “I don’t know,” because the purpose of knowledge is to know what we do not know.

Here matzah represents one of the most basic dimensions of exile and the exodus from Egypt.  The manifestation and revelation of God is so enormous that it crushes man and flattens his being and culture.  All his knowledge, which had swelled like leavened bread over the course of the year or the last thousand years, suddenly collapses with God’s revelation.  This is why the Haggadah places so much emphasis on the fact that the King of Kings of Kings was revealed.  To make this clearer, the Haggadah says: “I myself and not an angel.  I myself and not a seraph.  I myself and not a messenger.  I am the Lord I am He, and no other.”

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, reveals Himself so directly, without intermediaries, it matters little what level of knowledge man has reached: for he is brought back to his starting point.

J.E.: It is said that a little science distances someone from God, whereas a lot of science brings one closer. Thought, knowledge, and culture can reveal God, just as they can also lead to atheism. The fundamental freedom of the intellect is suspended in Egypt, because in Egypt there is no doubt as to the existence of God. There the revelation is total, absolute, and irrefutable.

A.S.: This is why matzah represents both the point of departure of all knowledge and its end point. It is the bread of slaves who are only just capable of opening their eyes and articulating “father”; it is also the bread of the Sages described in the Haggadah:

“Even if we were all, wise all of us men of knowledge and understanding the law, it nevertheless is incumbent upon us to narrate the exodus from Egypt, and all those who relate more and more of the narrative of the exodus from Egypt are to be praised.”

J.E.: One of the most remarkable features of the Passover holiday is that it is addressed to both the ignorant and to the wise. Customarily, the child’s role, the role of the ignorant, receives greater emphasis. Most of the Haggadah is based on questions a child is supposed to ask. However, the wise are also under the same obligation. On Passover, the child and the wise man are on an equal footing.

A.S.: In fact, the whole Passover ritual could be summarized in a single commandment: “You shall tell your son.” This is why at the beginning of the Haggadah the child asks four questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we only eat matzah?” and so forth.

According to the law, if there is no child present, or if an adult celebrates Passover alone, he must ask the questions, even though he is supposed to “know” the answers. It is customary in certain communities for adults to ask the questions, because on Passover, we should, in a sense, become children. This is also why in the Bible, Passover is called the “spring holiday.” On Passover, nature as a whole begins to blossom and man’s renewal coincides with that of nature. The Sages have pointed to the parallel between the word nitsan, “bud,” and Nisan, the month in which Passover takes place. It is a true renaissance.  We become children once again, and all we can do is ask questions. Why should we, after all we have learned?