The Egyptians owed us hundreds of years of stolen wages. Did we owe them something?
Table for Five: Bo
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The people picked up their dough when it was not yet leavened, their leftovers bound in their garments on their shoulders. -Ex. 12:34
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
In his classic novel Ivanhoe, published in 1819, Sir Walter Scott references the image of the wandering Jew. The Jewish character Isaac explains, “…disinherited and wandering as we are, the worst evil which befalls our race is, that when we are wronged and plundered, all the world laughs around, and we are compelled to suppress our sense of injury, and to smile tamely…”
There is a powerlessness in wandering, always relying on the tolerance of others. This verse from Exodus 12 establishes a connection between matzah and our existential wandering. The thin, bland Passover cracker can only carry the taste of that which we pile on its back – spicy horseradish, sweet charoset, etc. Matzah is powerless, as we once were.
The opposite of matzah is challah, not only because of its leavening, but also because challah is a statement by people who are free to choose to rest and make a statement that Shabbat, and our Jewish identity, is important. Good challah needs no help in terms of taste. “Good matzah” is a phrase I’ve never used. Whenever we’re in Israel, my children always ask my wife and me why the food tastes so good. “Why don’t tomatoes taste like this in Los Angeles?” The answer doesn’t rest in articles about pesticide usage and agricultural understanding. Taste is an expression of choice and power and privilege. Those tomatoes taste like the end of our wandering. Those tomatoes taste like our return home.
Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, N’vay Shalom
Year after year we reread Torah from beginning to end and yet we always find something unique; a word, a phrase, a sentence that stands out in a way as never before. As I re-read Chapter Twelve it was clear that God gives Moses instructions for the Passover rite and the Exodus, but it is in sentence 33, when the Egyptians “impose themselves strongly on the people to leave quickly,” because they are dying, that the Israelites pick up their dough, their leftovers, and leave.
It is not Moshe or even God that hurries them out of Egypt. It is the cries and the suffering of the Egyptians that moves the people to respond. Despite hundreds of years of slavery, somehow, they have retained a level of humanity and the ability to empathize with their neighbors. Perhaps they understood that as long as they were present the death and loss would continue. They seemed capable of a level of deep compassion despite all they had endured, for they too were mothers and fathers; they lost their children as well because of Pharaoh’s edicts.
Isn’t that what we are called upon to learn, just as we did when Joseph forgives his brothers for their outrageous actions towards him? No matter what evil we face, we must hold on to our humanity, compassion, and empathy for the other. When we celebrate the death of Pharaoh’s army who followed us into the sea, the midrash reminds us, “They too were God’s children.”
Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center
Does liberation from slavery mean disconnecting completely from the world we were liberated from? The verse teaches us that the children of Israel were in a state of transition between slavery and freedom: they went out in haste, pulled out of slavery without being completely prepared, in spite of the long period leading up to the Exodus from Egypt. The unrisen dough symbolizes this state of transition.
The word misharot, which means kneading bowls, is interpreted by the Mechilta and the commentators as “leftovers”, which has a similar Hebrew root. The children of Israel didn’t leave everything behind in Egypt, but went out carrying leftovers in their garments and on their shoulders.
When we move from one place to another we take our experiences with us as “leftovers”. For the generation that left Egypt, slavery was part of their roots, the only life they knew. The leftovers that they carried out on their shoulders after 400 years included the memory of slavery, the hope for true liberty and the struggle for freedom, which stayed with them as a reminder in the face of all kinds of slavery that still fill the world. These leftovers are a universal reminder that when the Jewish people left Egypt it did not proclaim liberty only for itself but, as Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uziel writes, “with head held high and courageous spirit, the Jewish people proclaims liberty for itself and calls for freedom and liberation for the entire world.” (Michmanei Uzziel 1, 2:7:1)
Ilan Reiner, passovertablerunners.com
This unusually descriptive verse not only tells us what the people did, picking up their unleavened dough, but also how they carried it – bound on their shoulders. Seems like a spontaneous action of taking whatever food they had on their rapid departure from Egypt.
I’ve got a Passover table runner that shows how along with the dough, they also took gold and silver from the Egyptians, which was mounted on their cattle and livestock. However, the unleavened dough they chose to carry on their shoulders! Rashi emphasizes that this shows affection to the mitzvah of matzah.
It can also be considered as their first act of freedom. Slaves have little or no control over what, when and where they eat. Even the time of leaving Egypt wasn’t up to them. Rushing out, they held tight to the dough, carrying it on them. From now on, they will decide when to bake it and how to eat it.
Another aspect of freedom is emphasized in the choice of words describing how the dough was taken. The first half of the verse is in singular, and the second – in plural. Everyone picked up their dough, and they all thought of carrying it the same way. Even the choice of word for ‘bound’, “tz’rurot” in Hebrew, is unique in the Torah, emphasizing the unity in mind and action of the people. No longer separate individuals, families and tribes, they are now one nation, heading out to freedom, in route to the Promised Land of Israel.
David Porush, student, teacher, writer @davidporush.com
How many of us have this snapshot burned in our imaginations, if not of our own grandparents coming to America then of countless others through history? It’s the iconic image of the refugee, exile, and runaway, what they could salvage bundled in clothing slung over their shoulders fleeing in the nick of time. But in that bundle the Torah here hides a dire prophecy, a gift, for us. As Shabtai ben Yosef Bass put it, “The Egyptians did not let them procrastinate long enough to become chametz.”
He probably meant their matzah, but it applies to the Hebrews, those remnants and the half-baked. Don’t stay long enough to leaven yourselves into comfortable arrogance in that fatal fourth or fifth generation in exile. Pharaoh is tuned to all the media channels showing your inflation and self-satisfaction, you media moguls and university presidents and scientists and artists and writers and billionaires and entrepreneurs and influencers, and he sees a whole population of Josephs, if not Benjamins, replacing his people in the marketplace. If you don’t run of your own accord, trust me, your hosts won’t let you dally. Neither you nor your matzah shall rise. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Needless to stay, the millennia have taught us this lesson too many times. We will never feel the time is right. Yes, the bread’s still bakin’, but grab yourselves, the half-baked dough, the remnants, and go.
With thanks to Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Ilan Reiner, and David Porush.
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