The Three Symbols

The Passover Seder is rich in symbolism, but there are three symbols that are so important and so meaningful that, in the words of Rabbi Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel, no Seder is really complete unless they are fully explained. These symbols are the Pesach, the Matzah, and the Marror.

What is the meaning of this Pesach?

This bone is the symbol of the Pesach lamb. After many years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites came to dwell in their own land, where each year, they would gather together at the Temple to celebrate the Exodus with rejoicing and festivity. Families would come from all parts of the land for the occasion, and each family would bring a lamb as its special offering in honor of the festival. This lamb was known as the Pesach, in remembrance of the time when our ancestors were spared the tragic fate of the Egyptians, whose first-born were slain. The Pesach was a reminder that God pasach "passed over" the houses of our ancestors in Egypt during the redemption.

Today, too, we invoke Adonai as the guardian of the people of Israel, as in our dwellings we renew the family bond and strengthen our ties with the whole people of Israel.

What is the meaning of this matzah?

There are three matzot, and so the meaning of the matzah is threefold. At the very beginning of the Seder, we learned that the matzah is, first of all, a symbol of the simple bread of poverty our ancestors were made to eat in their affliction, when they were slaves in the land of Egypt. The matzah also reminds us of the great haste in which the Israelites fled from Egypt. So hard did the Egyptians press them that, as we read in the Torah: "They baked unleavened cakes of dough since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, nor had they prepared provisions for themselves."

There is a third meaning to the matzah. In ancient times, the Israelites lived in the desert. Like all desert peoples, they lived simply. They dwelt in tents, dressed in plain garments, and ate only the simplest of foods. Even their bread was only an unleavened cake, like the matzah we eat tonight. When the Israelites settled in Canaan, they became farmers. Soon they prospered; and they began to desire fancy homes to live in, fine clothes to wear, and rich foods to eat. This made them greedy and envious. The Prophets cried out against their way of life and pleaded with them to return to the simple and modest ways of the desert.

So, for one week each year the matzah became the symbol of those early days when all people had little, but none had more when equality prevailed among the Israelites. Let the matzah be a symbol for us this week. Let it teach us to find delight not in selfish luxuries that excite the envy of our neighbors, but in simple acts of helpfulness and kindness that inspire their respect and love. Luxuries when shared by all are good to have; they add to our enjoyment of life and help to make us happy. But when the few have more than they need, and the many have not even life's necessities, then the plea of the Prophets must be heard. Let us strive to bring about peace with equality and justice for everyone. To the driven of the earth we link ourselves today as we fulfill the mitzvah:

"For seven days shall you eat matzah, that you may remember your departure from Egypt as long as you live."

The matzah we eat reminds us that though we have enough, many people go hungry. We who were slaves in Egypt and now have plenty, have a responsibility to those who do hunger.

In this elaborate and plentiful feast the matzah is a slender reminder of poverty. In our busy lives the Seder itself is a slender reminder that we are descended from a mixed multitude of slaves.

As we break the bonds of slavery may this meal that we share help us form bonds among each other so that we can eliminate all varieties of enslavement on the earth.

What is the meaning of this marror?

We eat the marror, or bitter herbs, to remind ourselves that the Egyptians embittered the lives of our people. As it is written: "And they made their lives bitter with hard labor at mortar and brick and in all sorts of drudgery in the field; and they ruthlessly imposed all the tasks upon them."

One of the most radical messages of the Torah is that cruelty is not destiny. Though we tend to treat others the way that we ourselves were treated, the message of Torah is that the chain of pain can be broken that we do not have to pass on to others what was done to us. How easy it is, in a time of comfort, to forget the suffering of our past. How easy it is, in an era of affluence, to fail to see the suffering of others. Each year the Seder reminds us that we were once oppressed, and that we can never truly be free until all people everywhere can celebrate their freedom with us.

Beyad chazakah ubizroa netuyah... With a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Freedom demands strength, because we must be able to defend our freedom from those who would deny it to us. We must not be passive about freedom. But at the same time freedom also demands that we stretch out our arm to those with whom we differ, that we build bridges to them, and that we promote tolerance and understanding, rather than hatred and discrimination.

Today, as well, wherever oppression remains, Jews taste its bitterness.

Pesach, matzah, and marror are the symbolic expressions that represent freedom in all ages. Translated into modern terms, they are sacrifice, preparedness, and remembrance. These are major elements in the battle for freedom.

In every generation, each of us should feel as though we ourselves had personally gone forth from Egypt. Every generation must discover freedom anew. For we read in the Torah: "And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt." Every generation must earn its claim to liberty.

It is an ever-recurring theme of history. We continue to remember: "It was we who were slaves... we who were strangers." And therefore, we recall these words as well:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt.

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them... You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. You shall rejoice before God with your son and daughter... and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow in your midst.

Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt. You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt. Not only our ancestors alone did the Holy One redeem but us as well, along with them, as it is written:

"And God freed us from Egypt so as to take us and give us the land promised to our ancestors."

We praise You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all life, who has delivered us and our ancestors from Egypt and brought us here this night to eat matzah and marror. Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, help us celebrate future holidays and festivals in peace and in joy. Then we will thank You with a new song.


(Drink the second cup of wine.)

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