Recently the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, Australia issued a statement concerning a new product called "laffa matzah” stating that it should not be eaten on Passover. Laffa matzah is a soft and chewy version of the regular brittle and cracker-like matzah most of us are used to.
Now it is possible that the Rabbinical Council of Victoria had doubts about this particular product rather than the concept of soft matzah, however, this story does bring up a bigger issue—the Jewish community’s focus on competing customs and stringencies on Passover.
Sephardic Jews, for example, have a custom to eat soft matzah while Ashkenazi Jews usually eat matzah that is baked as thin as possible. Kitniyot (beans and pulses) is another area where there are differing customs Sephardic Jews eat them on Passover while Ashkenazi Jews refrain. In the last few years some rabbis have said that in Israel and in the United States even Ashkenazi Jews can eat kitniyot on Passover. And in addition there are numerous other customs and stringencies that differ from one community to another on Passover.
But beyond the differing customs on Passover this festival has a vital message for today’s world. Many of us live in a democracy and we think and feel that we live a life of freedom. When we examine it closer, however, we often realize that we are enslaved to the norms of the society that we live in.
Take the concept of financial freedom for example. Maimonides points of in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that the necessities of life are either free or very inexpensive. The most vital resource for human survival is air, which is free. This is followed by water, a relatively inexpensive commodity. And food in its most basic form is very affordable. Basic shelter is similarly within reach of most people.
Vital lessonThings beyond our bare necessities are objects that we desire rather than need. Maimonides points out that there is no end to our desire for items and we may want. In other words, we work our entire lives in order to be able to reach a stage of financial freedom. But that freedom to buy whatever we desire often leads to enslavement to material objects—we are never happy with what we have and constantly feel the desire for more.
Passover, therefore, teaches us a vital lesson: freedom has nothing to do with finances or society; it is a state of mind. True freedom is the ability to be authentic to who you are. Real freedom entails the ability to delineate our own authentic voice as it differs from the influences of our upbringing, culture, community and society.
The ability to be ourselves and not enslaved to any other type of influences is true freedom. The capacity to make choices that are true to who we are rather than to whom others would like us to be is the stamp of a free individual. The capability to differentiate between the competing emotional and intellectual pressures and act as an independent agent is a mark of true personal freedom. This is what Passover teaches us. For a society that is weighed down by bondage to an excessively materialistic ideal it is a critical message.
This wonderful holiday and its vital and timely messages can get lost in the throngs of stringencies and differing customs related to Passover rituals. It is important to pay attention to the inner meaning and message of the festival because, ultimately, Passover should not only be enjoyable it should be personally transformative as well.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts