Matzah, Memory and Introspection (Ideas #103)

In many circles, it has become fashionable to replace the word “history” with the word “narrative.”  Doing so is an admission that recorded history is necessarily selective. Otherwise, we would be left with more random facts than we can, or would want to, remember. Thus, history represents a particular culture’s attempt to discriminate between important facts that need to be recorded to better understand itself and less important ones that seem to merely clutter that understanding.  Hence the Torah’s selectivity should come as no surprise; some chapters cover several centuries, whereas other events that transpired in a few days or even minutes are recorded in great detail over several chapters.


However, rather than apologizing for  this inconsistency as something “unscientific,” the Torah presumes that selectivity is not only necessary but that it can actually be a very positive feature of human consciousness. From this perspective, the Torah records and emphasizes that which is helpful for us to remember and omits what is not.


The Torah is also comfortable with selectivity in its legislation. Not all mitzvoth are given the same attention. Some laws require more of our attention whereas others require less. The commandment to observe Pesach through the generations (Shemot 12:14-20 serves as a particularly apt example of the former:


There we find that Pesach is described as a zikaron, a term that in classic usage could best be translated as a memory device and which otherwise is almost always used to describe an object.[1]


This anomaly is perhaps explained by the fact that the first set of commands regarding perpetual Pesach observance contains an overwhelming emphasis on the mandate to eat matzah and the corresponding prohibition to eat, or even possess, chametz. This emphasis is further bolstered in two ways. 1) Generally, when we are commanded in a positive commandment, the inverse does not become prohibited.[2]  For example, when we are commanded to don tefillin, we are not commanded to not put anything else in their place or, when we are commanded to blow the shofar we are not told to refrain from the playing of string instruments. 2) The stringency of this prohibition’s penalty – of being cut off (karet) is highly unusual in the laws of festivals. At the same time, some of the laws of Pesach, such as the eating of the Pesach sacrifice, or the telling over of the story, are not mentioned at all.[3] If Pesach is only referred to as a zikaron, specifically in the section that so emphatically deals with matzah, it could be the Torah’s way of telling us that it is the  matzah itself that is central to the day  being transformed into a zikaron – a memory device.


Indeed, matzah, which is essentially hastily baked bread, naturally conveys both the haste of the exodus and the poverty of the slavery in Egypt. It is itself a memory device that can encapsulate the main themes of Pesach if we pay attention to it. Our familiarity with holiday foods can blur the revolutionary nature of marshalling the multi-sensual experience of foods that could turn an entire day into a zikaron. 


What is remarkable is that the Torah understands that, for a commemoration to have true meaning, it must recreate an experience. The memory has to be personal and not simply something of which one knows about other people. Thus, with all the centrality of recounting the story of Pesach, without matzah, it would remain just a story about what happened to others. It is precisely for this reason that the halacha states that the tale cannot be told without the presence of matzah, thereby turning it into a personal memory which, like all personal memories, can be relived.[4] And the unparalleled numbers of Jews who keep this mitzvah and have an idea what it is about indicates the success of the Torah’s strategy.


What the Torah does by selecting that which is most useful should make us reflect on how to order our own lives and identities. We experience so many events in our lives which make us who we are. But there are also many events that do not make us who we are. The difference between the former and the latter is almost entirely determined in our own minds. Most of us are not sufficiently self-aware to know that we ourselves choose which events tell us who we are.


The good news is that it still can be otherwise. I am not suggesting that we focus only on our good sides in order for us to be more cheerful about ourselves. The point is seeing ourselves in a way that will help us to develop to our maximum potential.


In this vein, Rav Shlomo Wolbe z’l writes about developing our own sense of greatness before we engage in self-criticism. Both steps are needed. First the realization of what we can offer, based on an optimistic evaluation of ourselves, followed by a highly critical evaluation of where we have fallen. If we try to stay balanced and objective at either point, we will have missed the boat. Balance is valuable only as a point that represents an average of that which we do, not as a way of life wherein we wallow in an “I’m ok, you’re ok” mediocrity.


Selectivity is a part of everyone’s life, but productive selectivity is a way to emulate G-d.


[1]For example, the offering brought by an errant woman (sotah) is called a minchat zikaron (Bemidbar 5:15) and the tefillin worn between the eyes described as a zikaron (Shemot 13:9).

The possible exception to this would be in the description of Rosh haShanah as Zikaron Teruah (Veyikra23:24). There, however, the term can be understood as referring to the teruah (the shofar blast) and not to the actual day.

[2] While in many places, the Torah gives the same command in both negative and positive versions where it is the same commandment being expressed in different ways, here we have two distinct commandments which do not necessarily imply each other. In fact, during the first Pesach, chometz was not prohibited even though matzah was commanded.

[3] Actually, both of these central commandments are mentioned a few verses later, but the text divides them from the initial discussion of the holiday attributed directly to G-d and only mentions them in the speech subsequently given by Moshe to the Jewish people (Shemot 12:21-28)

[4] See Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor, (New York: Schocken, 1989) Chapter 1.