April 16, 2024
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The Significance of Pesach’s Big Three

“Rabban Gamliel used to say: ‘Whoever does not discuss the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty: Pesach (the Paschal sacrifice); matzah (the unleavened bread); maror (the bitter herbs).’”

Key to Fulfilling Our Duty

Rabban Gamliel asserts that without speaking about the korban Pesach, matzah and maror, one does not fulfill his obligation. Why is speaking about these objects so important?

The answer becomes clear when we appreciate the passage that follows Rabban Gamliel’s teaching in the Haggadah (as well as in the Mishna and the Rambam): “B’chol dor v’dor … — in every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he has left Mitzrayim.” This paragraph describes the obligation to not only recount the story of the Exodus, but also to feel part of the story.

Linking our telling of the story of yetziat Mitzrayim to the korban Pesach, matzah and maror is what makes this feeling possible. Having the foods eaten by our ancestors on the night of the Exodus before us on our Seder night helps us transcend time and feel as if we, ourselves, are experiencing the Exodus.

The three foods do more than just that, though. Rabban Gamliel explains that each one signifies a different aspect of the Exodus. A careful study of Rabban Gamliel’s words about each will help us appreciate their respective significance.

Pesach

Rabban Gamliel explains that the korban Pesach commemorates Hashem’s having been “poseach” over the homes of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim. The verb “poseach” is generally translated as “skipping over” (Melachim I, 11:21), which is why the name of the holiday is translated as “Passover.” This makes sense according to the way the Haggadah presents the plague of the firstborn—that it was Hashem who, personally, passed through Egypt to kill them.

Sefer Shemot (12:23), however, identifies a mashchit (destroyer) as the one who did the killing and describes Hashem’s role as preventing the mashchit from entering the Jewish homes. If so, it would make sense to translate the word “poseach” as “protected” (Yeshayahu 31:5), meaning Hashem protected the Jewish homes from the mashchit who was killing the Egyptian firstborn sons. This alternative explanation highlights Hashem’s care for us more strongly. On that fateful night, He did more than just skip over our homes. He, actively and personally, protected us from danger.

Matzah

Rabban Gamliel explains that the matzah commemorates our speedy departure from Egypt. The problem with this explanation, however, is that the Jews were commanded to eat matzah while they were still in Egypt, before the departure occurred! What meaning did it have at that point? The Avudraham learns from here that matzah has a second significance—it is the lechem oni, the “bread of poverty,” that reminds us of our enslavement. We mention this facet of the mitzvah at the beginning of the Seder, when we describe the matzah as “ha lachma anya.”

Tosafot explains that this “poverty” element of matzah dictates its physical form. This is why the matzah must be made from simple flour and water, and why we eat broken pieces at the seder. At the same time, the “freedom” facet of matzah is expressed by our eating the matzah while leaning comfortably. We express both elements of the matzah, by taking the objective symbol of slavery and eating it as free men.

It is interesting that the matzah commemorates both of these seemingly contradictory parts of the narrative. The message is that both slavery and redemption are critical aspects of the story and of Hashem’s plan for Am Yisrael.

As Rav Yissocher Frand writes: “The message in this is that in order to be a free person, we do not need anything. If a person specifically needs ‘bread’ as opposed to matzah to consider himself free, then he is not a free person. A person who needs the physical pleasure of bread to give him his sense of freedom is not really free. Rather, he is a slave to his physical needs. The Master of the Universe emphasizes that freedom has nothing to do with externals. It is entirely a phenomenon of one’s internal awareness. I can eat the same piece of matzah that I ate as a slave and also eat it now as a free person. This is true freedom.” (“Matzah: The Bread of Affliction and the Bread of Redemption.”)

Maror

The maror commemorates a third aspect of the Pesach story— the bitterness of the enslavement and persecution. Why do we commemorate this? The Sefat Emet (Pesach 5653) explains that we do this to emphasize that the bitterness was also part of Hashem’s plan. Throughout his sefer, the Sefat Emet explains that exile—though deeply painful—was, ultimately, beneficial to Am Yisrael. It helped us enter into the covenant with Hashem (Pesach 5632), and the bitter suffering strengthened us as a people and gave us the ability to survive similar situations in future exiles (Pesach 5647).

Rav Kook (Maamar Hador, 107) offers an additional explanation. He explains that we commemorate our ancestors’ view of the slavery as bitter because this reflects the fact that their enslavement was unnatural. This, ultimately, ensured that they would, one day, become free. A nation that refuses to be reconciled with its present state has the potential to change its destiny.

Like our ancestors, the Jewish people have historically refused to reconcile with exile. This facilitated our multiple returns to Eretz Yisrael—from Bavel for Bayit Sheni and, now, our miraculous return to Eretz Yisrael after almost 2000 years.

May we use the foods that the Torah commands us to eat on the Seder night to help us appreciate the different facets of the enslavement and redemption from Mitzrayim, and help us see ourselves as part of the story.

May doing so help us leave this final exile behind for good and, through this, merit our celebration being focused on the actual korban Pesach next year!


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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