If we take a good look at the Torah’s first discussion of the holiday of Pesach (Shemot 12:14-20), we see that it contains an overwhelming emphasis on the mandate to eat matzah and on the corresponding prohibition to eat or even own chametz. Other laws of Pesach that we might consider of equal importance, such as eating the Pesach sacrifice or telling over the story (haggadah) of Yetziat Mitzrayim/the Exodus from Egypt, are not mentioned at all. Why?
Furthermore, only in this section, which singles out the commandment to eat matzah, is Pesach referred to as a zikaron – a Biblical term generally used to describe an object that elicits a certain memory. Here too, we must ask, Why?
The Torah appears to be telling us that we must pay special attention to this particular mitzvah. And it wants us to do this on two levels. First, the Torah was directing the new Jewish nation to adopt a completely new holiday, one that differed markedly from the types of holidays observed by other nations of that time (which marked natural cycle of the year events, like harvests, and did not focus on historical events). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Torah was stressing the centrality of matzah to the holiday to tell us that it is specifically this practice that will somehow carve the festival into the Jewish psyche. And why is that?
The Torah shows our Creator’s understanding that without matzah or something like it, celebrating Pesach would run the risk of artifice, commemorating an event without triggering an actual memory of that event or its meaning. Indeed, this is the problem of many contemporary holidays where the commemoration and the event we are remembering don’t fit together organically. Thus, for instance, we must strain to explain what turkeys really have to do with Thanksgiving or what barbequed meats have to do with Yom Ha’atzma’aut.
For a commemoration to have a straightforward meaning, it must recreate an experience. With the signature use of matzah, coupled with other special foods and distinct practices that serve as memory devices, the holiday of Pesach becomes palpably different from other days. Those differences are something we experience with all of our senses. As a result, what starts with matzah ends up being so much more.
This Dvar Torah was adapted by Harry Glazer from the chapter “The Zikaron of Pesach: Productive Selectivity,” in Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book Redeeming Relevance In the Book of Exodus: Explorations in Text and Meaning (Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2010