Broken: A Necessary Step

Until just a few days ago, I had waited for years to be asked at Seder why we begin by breaking the middle matzah, יחץ (Yachatz). The simple answer is that we cannot begin to become whole until we first realize that we’re broken, that true freedom will continue to evade us until we admit, at least to ourselves, that we lack it.

It’s especially difficult in modern times, particularly for those of us living in western democracies, to face just how far removed we are from actual freedom. This realization, and the resulting deep longing, have been much more intensely felt throughout most periods of our history. Here, in the twenty-first century United States, there is a natural inclination by many to read the Haggadah as a quaint historical text talking about almost mythological people “long ago and far away”. While the matzah is broken, we’re just fine, thank you very much.

Perversely, claiming “freedom from the chains of religion”, spearheaded by questioning the historicity of the entire story, has become central to the “progressive” canon and not so slowly infiltrates  even more traditional Seders. Although the Shoah, Holocaust, as well as the Gulag, remains as close as our own parents’ and grandparents’ generations, that living link with Jewish slavery is rapidly disappearing and it becomes increasingly easy for those so inclined to trivialize or to deny it completely. So, even though almost the entirety of Europe’s Jews (and almost half of all the world’s Jews of that time) lived in slave camps less than seventy-five years ago (I’m not trivializing the terrible situations that often faced Jews living in Moslem countries in those days), it’s become inconvenient and, even worse, impolite to bring that up in our “enlightened” day. Thus, many “modern” seders focus on the individual and their emotions, as well as various external political causes, rather than on our people and our reality. Pesach, continuing this trend, becomes a vehicle for that very narcissism and mis-aimed idealism which entraps us and then blinds us to reality.

The founding of Medinat Yisrael, the sovereign State of Israel, did not, despite the passionate line in Hatikva, the national anthem,  להיות עם חפשי בארצנו (lihiyot am chafshi b’artzenu), “to be a free nation in our land”, bring immediate and total freedom to even those Jews who now make their lives there. Perhaps the experience of continual and very real existential threat largely prevents the complaisance among most Israelis that afflicts those in the affluent diaspora communities (of course, there are still some communities who are more threatened), but how many of our people there, perhaps just because of these security and terrorist threats, see beyond a lengthy, but still temporary, ceasing of hostilities, all the way to our real destiny? Even among religious Jews, how many of us long for true freedom rather than merely extending diaspora styles of observance ?

The Haggadah, although often approached as such, is not modern document looking back at our history, but, rather an ancient text, written perhaps as early as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the complier of Mishna in early 3rd century CE, at the latest before the end of the Talmudic period approximately 5oo CE. It was prepared for and addressed to us, the generations of the future, not merely to give us a sense of history and continuity, but to teach us both how to survive the exile, but more importantly how to prepare for and eventually bring about true freedom.

Complaisance is the enemy of freedom. Settling for mediocrity is the enemy of freedom. Distraction is the enemy of freedom. Taking our slavery, whichever form(s) it manifests, for granted is the enemy of freedom.

Carefully study, rather than merely recite, the lessons our sages left for us in the Haggadah. Now that we’ve finished the mad rush of cleaning and cooking for yet another Seder season and the time pressure is slightly relaxed, is a great time. It’s never too early or too late to realize that there’s still a lot of work left ahead.

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3 Responses to Broken: A Necessary Step

  1. Jacques Ruda says:

    As you know we are in the period of “counting the omer,” the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. While Israel was released from bondage at Pesach, it did not become “free” until it received the Torah . We needed the law to give us the discipline and structure to release us from
    the slavery of our base instincts and give us the freedom to rise above those. By the way, when my daughter was in Israel a few years ago she had the opportunity to be with a person who had been a slave in Sudan just before Pesach. It certainly made the whole theme current. Finally with respect to the Haggadah,, it quotes Rabban Gamliel saying what must be discussed. That would have been around 90 CE. The earliest actual copies of the Haggadahs come from R. Amram Gaon and R. Saadiah Goan, which would be in the period of 850-890 CE..Have a Chag Someach

    • The earliest written copies of the Haggadah that survive are, indeed, from the Gaonic era, but the nusach was set earlier. There are, as I mentioned, opinions that Rabi Yehuda HaNasi, himself, complied it. In any event, it’s a while back.
      I think that in a place like today’s America, despite the “Black Lives Matter” movement, few people ever meet those who were actually slaves and so very few have any understanding outside of Hollywood of what slavery is. Of course, people in our generation grew up knowing, some, as their own parents, others as the parents of friends, those who actually did experience slavery. But in our children’s generation, very few had actual adult contact. I imagine the experience of meeting the former slave from Sudan was quite moving for your daughter.
      I often say that Pesach got us all the way to zero. As you mention, we needed further steps to really get us somewhere. It’s counterintuitive in contemporary times that discipline and structure are absolutely necessary for freedom. The Maharal has a different take. He says that a servant is always limited by his master. Thus, one who is enslaved to another human is limited by that person’s individcual limitations. However, if one becomes an Eved HaShem, a servant to God, one is limited by God’s limitations which, of course, don’t exist. Thus, accepting the responsibilities and structures of Torah, one becomes unbound by limitations, i.e. free.
      Hope your Chag is proceeding as nicely as your family photo indicates!

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