Each year, I find a new Hagaddah to explore - it’s part of how I try to see the story of the Exodus anew each time we celebrate our journey from slavery to freedom. This year, I did some learning out of a Hagaddah that compiled many of the teachings of the Ben Ish Chai, a renowned 19th century Sephardic rabbi and scholar.
One of the teachings that I appreciated the most gave me a new understanding of Yachatz, the part of the seder when we break the middle of the three pieces of matzah on the table. The Ben Ish Chai offers a teaching in which he suggests that we break the matzah in two to remind ourselves that each action we take involves a partnership between a person and God, of which God’s portion is larger than that of the individual, which is in turn symbolized by the two halves of the matzah.
In reflecting on the Exodus from Egypt, there’s no doubt that each person needed to choose to leave (highlighted by our tradition’s teaching that many Israelite slaves even chose to stay!). Yet that momentous decision would not have been possible without God’s response to the cry of the Israelites, and the many miracles that followed. In turn, those miracles would not have occurred without the initial cry of the Israelites, Moses’ leadership, the willingness of those who left Egypt to take a leap of faith, etc. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for a covenant, a formalized holy relationship, between the Israelites and God at Sinai.
I would add a layer to this teaching as well. After Yachatz, we hide the larger portion that’s broken from the middle matzah, finding it at the end of our meal, the final element we need in order to bring the seder to a conclusion. I learn two things from this, based upon the Ben Ish Chai’s initial teaching: One is that God’s presence in my life is always there, yet not often immediately apparent. It requires my personal seeking, investment, and patience in order to discover where God can be found in my life. Secondly, it’s not possible for completion or (in the framing of the seder) redemption to arrive without recognizing the central place of a Power greater than myself in my life. Without recognizing the critical role played by God in my life and taking action to acknowledge that, something is missing.
This was the first year I’ve had Passover in Los Angeles - I’m used to showing up at my parents’ house the day before the holiday, the house already clean, food already prepared. Suffice to say that this year’s holiday has, indeed, been different from all other previous holidays. Though I’ll credit the vast majority of the cooking and cleaning to Sarah, I did do some of it... and certainly far more than I ever have before. While in the midst of it, it was easy to get overwhelmed and hyper-focused on each tiny little bit of chametz that needed to be removed from our home, all too simple to over-buy at the store (how can only one kind of horseradish be enough?). And yet, through that crazy pre-Pesach prep, I now see the holiday differently on more than just a ritual level. I’ve heard Rabbi Mark’s teaching about searching out the inner chametz, the parts of myself that are too puffed up, and removing them from myself. But it wasn’t until this year, having done the process that could easily just become a glorified spring cleaning, that I have a deeper, more visceral understanding of what that process can and should look like.
I see this as connected with the Ben Ish Chai’s teaching as well. My life is deeper and more centered when I search out the ways in which God is present in my life with the same passion and focus with which I was getting ready for this holiday. I’m also taught that when I put in that effort, God meets me more than halfway, just as the hidden part of the matzah from Yachatz becomes the afikoman. So, as we move into the second half of this year’s Passover, may we all see more clearly the ways in which we have the opportunity and obligation to partner with God in our lives, continuing to leave Egypt together.