Breaking the Middle Matzah
by Rabbi Steven Wernick
PASSOVER IS COMING!
Oy, time to clean, move dishes,
create menus, cook, and prepare
the seder. Every year I
look for new ways to generate
questions, which of course
also means that I have to be prepared to answer
them or to have the resources at hand to
find an answer.
Two of my favorite Passover questions are
about yachatz, when we break the middle
matzah. The first question: Why three
matzahs? Numerous answers have been suggested
over the centuries. The matzahs, we're
told, represent the three hierarchal ranks
of the Jewish people – kohanim, levi'im and
yisrael – and the unity that joins us. Others
have suggested that one matzah represents
Shabbat, one represents the festivals,
and one represents lechem oni, the bread
of poverty or affliction. So we invite the
oni'im, the poor, into our homes to share
Shabbat and the festivals.
The second question: Why do we break
the middle matzah? Is it a symbol of the
skimpy fare endured by our ancestors when
they were slaves? Do we break it as a symbol
of hospitality? Breaking bread with guests?
Or might the sandwiching of the matzah we
break between two whole pieces suggest different
The middle matzah might capture the
image of our ancestors' position. They were
caught between a rock and a hard place –
between the bricks they were forced to make
and Pharaoh's hardened heart. They also were
caught between Pharaoh's army and the sea.
Another possibility is that the broken
matzah reminds us that even when life is
at its darkest, when the Egypt within which
we dwell is the most oppressive, there still
is reason to hope. Pharaoh did let our people
go. The sea did split. Our people did
achieve liberation and redemption.
And we break the middle matzah at the
beginning of the seder to remind us that
we have to be participants in our own
redemption. We have to break out of our little
Egypts – those actions and attitudes
that bind and constrict us.
What's true for the individual is true for
organizations too. As we approach Passover
this year, the new United Synagogue is three
quarters of the way through our first year
of strategic planning implementation. We
have been hard at work breaking through
those actions and attitudes that may have
bound us while building upon our successes
to create new opportunities for Conservative
kehillot and for ourselves.
We are accomplishing this through new
initiatives, such as our expanded three-part
Sulam Leadership program; new governance
(our suggested new bylaws are up for a final
vote on March 18 and a new board is likely
to be seated then too); Israel programming undertaken in partnership with Nefesh b'Nefesh
and the Jewish National Fund; our new
KRM system, which provides proactive relationship
building with our kehillot, and a
serious and sustained system-wide collaboration
that is creating a new paradigm for
Jewish learning under Conservative auspices.
And there is so much more! It all makes
the newUnited Synagogue an indispensible
partner with all the centers of energy that
make up Conservative Judaism as we work
together to revitalize and further the impact
of our sacred values and ideas in North America
and around the world.
This Passover, let's break the middle
matzah and step together to the future. Let's
go together toward a future that is not only
possible but is now. Chag sameach!
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.