I studied a text recently that I wanted to bring to my shul on the Shabbat before Pesach. And then I remembered that this year on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat right before Pesach, we’ll be hosting noted culinary historian Michael Twitty! (All are welcome!) So I’m sharing a pre-Pesach teaching a week early.
Each of us has a still point within us, given to us by God. So says Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter of Ger, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet (that’s the name of his best-known book, and it’s one of the Hasidic texts I’m studying regularly this year). He returns to this idea often. Each of us has a nekudat elohut, a spark of godliness. No matter who we are, this spark in us is eternal.
And sometimes that still point, that little spark of holiness, comes to feel constricted. This can happen when we’re min ha-meitzar, in tight places. Maybe you can hear the aural connection between meitzar and Mitzrayim — life’s tight places, and the Mitzrayim / Egypt of our people’s core story. Mitzrayim is constriction that makes our soul-sparks feel crushed and insignificant.
The Sfat Emet says that in those times, this still point, this spark, becomes our internal lechem oni — “the bread of our affliction,” our smallness, our poverty of spirit. That phrase comes from the haggadah, when we say of the matzah (in Aramaic, but it’s the same phrase) ha-lachma anya, “this is the bread of our affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt…”
He’s saying that the “bread of our affliction,” that sense of impoverishment, isn’t just the literal matzah that represents our ancient poverty food — it’s also our own souls. Our souls become afflicted, become crushed into smallness and flatness like a piece of matzah. The spark of our souls can become crushed into something dry and flat and tiny. That’s bread of our affliction.
Our job, he writes, is to make that crushed, tiny point become expansive — to grow the point of holiness within our souls, to give it space. Take that in for a moment: our job in spiritual life is to notice when our soul-spark feels crushed and flattened, and to create the inner conditions in which that spark can rise and expand. Our job is to help our souls take up the space they deserve.
Pesach is a time of distilled memory. (I think this is true both as a people and as individuals — we remember the Exodus from Egypt; we may also remember all of life’s other Passovers.) Torah tells us to remember it and keep it. That’s the same language Torah uses about Shabbat, which we also “keep” and “remember.” It’s the same language Torah uses about mitzvot, too.
(Here’s a funny thing: the Hebrew letters that spell mitzvot can also spell matzot. We keep the mitzvot and we keep the matzot, and together those two keep us. As the saying goes, “more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people” — and far more Jews observe some kind of Pesach than observe Shabbes every week! But I digress.)
We’re called to remember and keep Pesach as a nation and as individuals. As we retell the core story of our people’s liberation, as we remember narrow straits and escape into expansiveness, we relive the Exodus not only on a national level but also on a soul-level. Our people went from constriction into freedom, and as individual souls we do too, not once but over and over again.
Pesach — says the Sfat Emet — is meant to be our springboard into expansiveness of soul. So that our lechem oni, the part of us that feels flattened like matzah by life’s difficult circumstances, can become expansive. So our tight constricted places can open, like a risen loaf. So our hearts and souls can expand so far from that flattened state that we can barely contain our joy.
In one of the psalms of Hallel (which we sing at festive times including the Passover seder) we sing, “min hameitzar karati Yah / anani bamerchav Yah” – from the tight straits I called to You, and You answered me with divine expansiveness. Our own tight places are meant to be answered with expansiveness: with divine expansiveness, and with our own. May it be so.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) Offered with gratitude to her Torah study group of Bayit builders.