One day a number of years ago I was in a heated debate with my chavruta (learning partner). My chavruta was railing against all the people who rushed out of their homes at the end of Passover to find the nearest hametz in order to fulfill a desire that had built up over the previous eight days; those people should wait at least until the next morning to have hametz. I was busy defending those people and their right to eat hametz once Passover ended. Thankfully, a wise third party overheard our debate (which admittedly was probably not that difficult to overhear) and found an elegant solution to our back and forth. We were both right, he explained. One should not rush to hametz as soon as possible just because they can. At the same time, if one is hungry, one should not hold oneself back from hametz either.
Now, I could begin to explain how this is an excellent lesson in listening to what others have to say and finding compromise. However, I would like to focus on a different aspect of that debate. How do we and, more importantly, our learners react when we sacrifice our own pleasure for something greater? Going without pasta, burritos, and nut butter and jelly sandwiches for a week might not seem like a big deal. But, when the rest of the world is busy enjoying all of these things, going without them can make being Jewish feel like a burden. How can we change the narrative from one that drives people to eat hametz as soon as they physically can to one that helps them see the joy of eating matzah (and other aspects of Jewish life)?
I don’t claim to have the one magic solution to this challenge. However, I do think the answer lies in accentuating the positive. Matzah is both bread of freedom and lehem oni (poor person’s bread); eating it on Passover reminds us how lucky we are to be free. Giving tzedakkah might not be easy when one is saving up to buy a new game; but giving to others, especially when it is not easy, benefits both the receiver and the giver when both parties appreciate the weight of the action.
The Sages understood the love poem Shir Ha’Shirim (Song of Songs) to be about the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Love is not always easy and can require difficult compromises. The prophet Isaiah relates that God wants the Jewish people to be an or la’goyim (light to the nations). Working for the greater good even at one’s own expense is difficult, but it can flood the world with brightness; and leading learners to see the value of the light they can bring into the world has the potential to even make eating lehem oni a rich experience.
Rabbi Eric Zaff