How can a broken cracker transform not only your seder, but your life? And maybe even the race for the presidential nomination?
I know, it sounds like a totally over-the-top, and all-too-unlikely, promise by yet another in the endless line of people selling Jewish practice. Only in this case, it’s not. This is a modest proposal regarding a very bold idea — one that really works.
This is an invitation to take seriously the very traditional claim — one found in every layer of Jewish text and community from the Bible, through rabbinic literature, Maimonides and many other medieval authors, Kabbalah and a whole variety of contemporary thinkers — that Jewish practice, beyond being a token of our submission to God’s will, or a “secret handshake” affirming our membership in the tribe, adds practical value to our lives, and can help us address the most fundamental questions we possess, as individuals and as communities.
To be clear, both the “submission model” and the “secret handshake model” are quite compelling for some people, including me. But they have never been the only models for making sense of why we do what we do, and there is no reason for that to be the case today, especially as more than half of America Jews polled, proudly claim a Jewish identity that is neither religion- nor God-dependent, and the contours of our tribe are rapidly changing.
Bottom line, people come to the seder table for many reasons, so why should one of those reasons not be to make their lives better, and to find some of the tools they need to construct those better lives, both for themselves and for others as well?
So what’s the deal with this broken cracker? And how can it add value to our lives, and even to transforming an increasingly crazy race for the presidency? Well, the Sages teach (Talmud, Pesachim, 39a) that matzah is called lechem oni, not only because it is the bread of poverty/affliction, as the words literally suggest, but also because it is bread over which we say many words and answer (onim) many questions.
In addition to symbolizing the hasty exit from captivity by long-held slaves who had no time to let their loaves rise, the “bread” we eat at the seder, marks the intellectual give-and-take that is the hallmark of freedom, both for those leaving Egypt back then, and for all of us today.
Early in the seder, we break the middle matzah — yachatz — using the smaller half to stimulate conversation about the move from oppression to liberation. The larger half is saved as the afikomen, without which we cannot finish the meal, and which needs to be found wherever, or with whomever, it is hidden. It’s actually quite brilliant, and in ways that go far beyond a game designed to keep children interested in whatever is happening at the table.
This simple but elegant practice reminds us we need to break open conversation as much as we need to break bread, that that no one person has all the answers, and that the solutions we seek — will be found by looking to other people and often, in overlooked places. Imagine if each person at the seder saw everyone else seated around the table that way. Imagine if each person seeking the presidency did that as well!
As the middle matzah is broken, and the larger part is hidden for later, consider the following questions and the answers which those gathered at your table choose to share:
As those running for president offer their polished answers with such certainty, what national question for which they have no set or easy answer would you like them to raise?
To whom do you wish the candidate you support would turn to learn something they don’t yet know or cannot do well? What could they learn?
What big questions do you have — about Passover, politics or life — questions for which you don’t yet have answers but wish you did?
To what people and other sources of insight, not usually accessed by you, could you turn to seek answers to those questions?
Yachatz and afikomen help us discover that sometimes, we are most whole when we dare to break, and most complete when we learn from others.
We need not be broken, or see ourselves as broken, in order to appreciate the power of breaking things open in order to see them in new ways, or to engage new people in seeing new value in old ways. We need simply appreciate the value of cracks, in even our most well-built or trusted structures and beliefs.
While he was no Talmudist, the poet/performer Leonard Cohen said it well in his classic ballad, “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield serves as president of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and is the co-founder and executive editor of TheWisdomDaily.com