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 themes?

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.

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