Parshat Tzav

By Linda Bernstein, Pharm.D., M.J.S, ’21, AJRCA Rabbinical Student

“Matzoh Memories”

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, describes the various sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle and Temple. One offering specifically interested me as we prepare our homes by removing leavened products to make it a sacred abode for the arrival of Pesach this coming week. The Parsha describes the meal offering of unleavened cakes that should be consumed within the Tent of Meeting, a holy place.

וְהַנּוֹתֶ֣רֶת מִמֶּ֔נָּה יֹאכְל֖וּ אַהֲרֹ֣ן וּבָנָ֑יו מַצּ֤וֹת תֵּֽאָכֵל֙ בְּמָק֣וֹם קָדֹ֔שׁ בַּחֲצַ֥ר אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יֹאכְלֽוּהָ׃


What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes, in the sacred precinct; they shall eat it in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting.


Kli Yakar on Leviticus 6:9:2 said: The kohein’s portion of the meal-offering is always matzoh, which has an aspect of holiness since it is devoid of leaven.


Let us explore the nature of these “unleavened cakes” and what they mean to us in our lives.


וַיֹּאפ֨וּ אֶת־הַבָּצֵ֜ק אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצִ֧יאוּ מִמִּצְרַ֛יִם עֻגֹ֥ת מַצּ֖וֹת כִּ֣י לֹ֣א חָמֵ֑ץ כִּֽי־גֹרְשׁ֣וּ מִמִּצְרַ֗יִם וְלֹ֤א יָֽכְלוּ֙ לְהִתְמַהְמֵ֔הַּ וְגַם־צֵדָ֖ה לֹא־עָשׂ֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃


And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. Exodus 12:39


These “unleavened cakes”… Matzot… what are they? The bread of affliction, a symbol of freedom, rapid redemption, or humility, or all the above? For me, I have fond memories of eating matzoh on the first night of Passover. I always savored the first bite of matzoh for it meant that all the preparation had been done, not by me, mind you, but by my dear mother.


Ilse, or Omi as my children endearingly called her, could be seen standing on a chair, cleaning the venetian blinds in my bedroom the day after she finished baking and distributing a hundred hamantaschen to family, friends, and neighbors for Purim. She worked tirelessly for weeks to ready our home for the seder and the Passover week, all in strict accordance with the laws of kashrut.


She cleaned out her kitchen days in advance of the seder. My siblings and I were relegated to eating breakfast in the basement using the clothes dryer as a table because she didn’t want any “hametz” in the kitchen as she had already brought up her special Pesach dishes to begin the cooking process. Oh yes… there was fancy gold-rimmed china for the seder that had a royal quality, but also a motley array of other accessory dishes, cups, and silverware we only saw on Pesach that symbolized the special, almost fairytale like quality of the holiday. There were the flat butter knives, and the small round metal plates with a checkerboard picnic tablecloth design that served as individual carriers of the parsley, charoset, matzoh and maror served at the designated times during the seder. The beige porcelain pitcher with the pale blue rim held non-alcoholic sweet raisin wine with a touch of cinnamon she made just for us children. And the two toned, majestic crystal goblet that sat alone but proudly at the end of her elegantly set table, which had survived the escape from Germany and was filled with wine in the ready for Elijah’s mystical visit.


No detail was ignored. It was my mother’s big holiday to be sure as we all were treated to her five-course meal of chopped liver, matzoh ball soup, beet salad, roast beef and more, followed by an unlimited array of yummy desserts including sweet matzoh kugel and dreamy wine cream. She lovingly made these dishes by hand from the German recipes she had used since childhood and had somehow managed to bring with her when she escaped the Nazis and came to this country alone on a boat in 1939, at the age of 19.  Both my parents relished the freedom they had in the United States after escaping Germany. They were warm, hospitable, and shared their table with others who were alone and needed a seder to join.


I must also mention our favorite kids’ matzoh breakfast creation… we called it “Matzoh Brockel” (derived from the German word, gebrochen, meaning broken or crushed). We took a cup or mug, broke one or two pieces of matzoh into it, crunched it down so it was tightly packed. Next, we poured heated milk over it, let it soak until it became soft, and then drank out the warm milk. Next, we took a plate… placed it over the opening of the cup, held onto the plate and cup and flipped them over at the same time. We placed the plate on the table and gently lifted up the cup… and voila, we had a matzoh tower to which we added cinnamon, sugar and jam.


Getting back to my original question… what is the meaning of matzoh?


To me, matzoh is a metaphor for life itself. It was baked in a hurry… reflective of how our lives go by so quickly, how plans can be interrupted and how sometimes there is no chance for “leavening” of our desires and wishes. We must learn to deal with life’s ups and downs and be willing to shift direction at a moment’s notice. Certainly, the pandemic is an example of how plans can change on a dime.


Secondly, matzoh is brittle. It is easily broken and loses its shape. Life can be brittle at times, and when personal or societal tragedies happen, we lose our foundation and can find ourselves without form or direction. Our own recent plague-like pandemic showed us how brittle life can be, and how sometimes we are left to just pick up the pieces as best we can.  Maybe that is what Tevye was referring to when he said, if it were not for tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!


Third, matzoh often leaves behind a trail of crumbs. We know when someone has eaten matzoh by looking at their plate, tablecloth, chair, or the floor beneath them. Our actions in life often leave behind crumbs of evidence, for good, solidifying a positive legacy or for bad, a tainted one. If we follow the mitzvot and dedicate ourselves to a life of maasim tovim (good deeds), the crumbs we leave behind are like seeds that can sprout into more good things, like children and grandchildren to carry on our traditions; or the joy and benefits that result when we help someone in need. That person in turn, may eventually help someone else. On the other hand, if we live our life in a way that is less than morally just, we may leave behind crumbs of tragedy, hurt and loss in the wake of our selfish behavior.


Finally, matzoh is moldable. We can smash it, soak it, fry it, bake it, cover it with butter and jam and do countless other creative maneuvers to make it more palatable, savory or sweet. We can turn it into a kugel, stuffing, balls, coatings, cakes and cookies. Just look on today’s grocery shelves where you fine plain, whole wheat, egg, organic, rye, gluten free, shmurah, chocolate covered and rosemary and garlic matzoh varieties, just to name a few.


In life, we must also be malleable and work to optimize what we have. We are all dished in one form or another a set of basic ingredients, human qualities, skills, talents, strengths, and weaknesses. We start out as if we are made of the plain flour and water that form a matzoh as we embark on our life journey. We can accept the simple ingredients we have been dealt, like eating plain matzoh, which is certainly fine, but we all know that can get a bit tiresome after a while. Or we can take our life gifts, and they are gifts, and over time, by reforming, exploring, experimenting, and creating our own unique life path that incorporates our own basic ingredients but also mixes in and takes advantage of other components that can enrich our lives and those of others. We can take the plain matzoh we have been served, and make “matzoh brockel” out of it, to form our own sweet tower of life’s accomplishments.


The lesson of matzoh is also one we can instill in our children, who have yet to be leavened. When they ask, why is this night different from all other nights, we can answer by saying that tonight we thank God for the matzoh we have been given and celebration of a life well led that it represents. Just as our ancestors who were slaves had to hurry and make their matzoh as they escaped their state of bondage, matzoh reminds us today that we are all blessed to live a life without the shackles of slavery and one in which we have the freedom to live life fully, make the best of what we have and do so with integrity.


As you take your first bite of matzoh this week, think about the holiness that it brings to our lives.


Thanks Mom, for the life lessons and beautiful matzoh memories.