We have now told the story of Passover…but wait! We’re not quite done. There are still some symbols on our seder plate we haven’t talked about yet. Rabban Gamliel would say that whoever didn’t explain the shank bone, matzah, and marror (or bitter herbs) hasn’t done Passover justice.
The shank bone represents the Pesach, the special lamb sacrifice made in the days of the Temple for the Passover holiday. It is called the pesach, from the Hebrew word meaning “to pass over,” because the Holy One, blessed be He passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt during the last plague of the slaying of the first born.
On that first Passover night in Egypt, the Jews put blood on the door posts, and the Angel of Death "passed over" the Jewish houses. Actually most people think the blood was on the outside of the door, but really the blood was on the inside. The Jews sat there that night, staring at the blood. They had a lot to think about. They were going to walk out of Egypt the next morning and enter into a covenant with Hashem.
Why do we use a lamb? What is the significance of eating an animal for the purpose of remembering such an event? While we were slaves under the Egyptians for 400 years, we became dominated by the Egyptian culture. It is said that we only retained three things after a 400 year enslavement: our clothing, our names, and our Hebrew language. As we know from the last plague, the first born has a tremendous value in Egyptian culture. Our exodus was scheduled for the month of Nissan, and the astrological symbol of the month of Nissan is Aries, the Ram. The 15th day is the apex of a lunar month, and so the slaughtering of the ram-god of the Egyptians was to be done on the evening of the full moon of it's very own month (ostensibly the height of it's powers). The Egyptians would be powerless to prevent it!
We go so far as to call the shabbat before passover Shabbat Hagadol, "the great shabbat". This is the day that Hashem commanded the jews to tie the offering four days before it was slaughtered. As the Jews were going around Egypt collecting lambs on a Saturday, the Egyptians started asking questions. The Jewish response that they were for the purpose of slaughter, ritual, and consumption was like flaunting their intentions in the faces of their Egyptian neighbors and oppressors. Sheep were chosen precisely because they were taboo to the Egyptians and any attempt to slaughter them would be resisted forcefully. It was as though we were daring them to interfere with us in the wake of a series of plagues against them.
When the Jews further told the Egyptians that the purpose of this ritual would be to protect every Jewish household from the upcoming plague of slaying the first-born, it actually started a civil war in Egypt. They knew that up till now, Hashem had a good track record for following through with his plagues and so they started fighting each other to try to put a stop to this madness. We call it Shabbat Hagadol because the Egyptians killed each other over this plague, and the direct result of us slaying the Egyptian god was us being able to leave the Egyptian land and the Egyptian culture following the slaying of the first-born.
So every year we consume the paschal lamb to remember that in our lives we still are slaves to a permeating culture that is not our own. What are the gods in this generation? Where do people put all the power and worship? Career, fashion, fame, status, wealth. We are all worshipping something. We are all religious. We need to ask: what are the idols I worship? Where do I give my power? We are dominated by forces that cause us to abandon our Jewish laws, customs, and ideals. We must literally slaughter the false god of these forces in order to rise above them and return to our core values. Find your idol. Then exchange it for the real thing. That is the Passover offering.
The matzah reminds us that when our ancestors were finally free to leave Egypt, there was no time to pack or prepare. Our ancestors grabbed whatever dough was made and set out on their journey, letting their dough bake into matzah as they fled. This powerful symbol of this holiday actually has a deeper meaning.
There is a common misconception that is a source of confusion around Matzah. We call it the bread of affliction, yet also ate this bread as we were redeemed from Egypt. The reason for this is that we actually ate matzah as our daily bread as slaves in Egypt. It is called the bread of affliction because our oppressors in Egypt fed us matzah because it didn't need the attention of bread, it was an act of demeaning us, and as we all experience on passover, it is a flat bread that expands in our stomachs, enabling us to feel full on an empty stomach and keep working as slaves.
Why then did we make matzah on our way out of Egypt? We actually knew we were to leave Egypt the night before we left. So couldn't we prepare leavened bread for our departure? We ate matzah even as we left Egypt because we were still humbled by slavery in Egypt. Just as the bread was flat, so too was our ego.
This flat ego would then transform into a leavened or inflated ego as we are commanded to eat leavened bread on the holiday of Shavuot -- the day which we received the Torah at mount sinai.
All throughout the year we eat bread that is leavened. We have an ego that is inflated by aspects that we think define us. Today we walk around with signs that say, "I'm a doctor," "I have washboard abs," "I have 10,000 square feet in my house." On passover however, we attempt to suspend this ego. We use matzah to recall how we were humbled by slavery for 400 years. We use this remembrance to humble ourselves with the goal of finally inflating our ego with pride in receiving the Torah and in being Jewish.
The bitter herbs provide a visceral reminder of the bitterness of slavery, the life of hard labor our ancestors experienced in Egypt. The Egyptians embittered our lives with hard labor: with mortar and bricks, with every kind of work in the fields. All the work which they made them do was rigorous.
In every generation one must loop upon himself as if he personally had come out from Egypt, as the Bible says: "and thau shalt tell thy son on that day, saying, it is because of that which the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt." For it was not alone our forefathers whome the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed; He redeemed us too, with them, as it is said: "He brought us out from there that He might lead us to and give us the land which He pledged to our forefathers."
Raise the cup of wine and say:
Therefore, it is our duty to thank and to praise in song and prayer, to glorify and extol Him who performed all these wonders for our forefathers and for us. He brought us out from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from sorrow to festivity, from darkness to great light. Let us therefore sing before Him a new song. Praise the Eternal.
Put down the cup and continue:
Halleluyah-- Praise the Eternal. Praise, ye servants of the Eternal, praise the name of the Eternal. Blessed be the name of the Eternal from now and for evermore; From the rising of the sun to its descent.
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