The Bread of Affliction

Note: I sent this repost at Passover time last year and thought it was well worth sharing again. – Alan Gilman


For the week of April 27, 2019 / 22 Nisan 5779

A stack of matza (Jewish unleavened bread)

Pesach 8
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Isaiah 10:32-12:6
Originally posted the week of April 11, 2015 / 22 Nisan 5775

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You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread (matza), the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. (D’varim / Deuteronomy 16:3)

If you attended a Pesach (English: Passover) Seder the other day, or any other time for that matter, you most likely heard the following words when the matza (English: unleavened bread) was uncovered near the beginning of the evening: “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” But perhaps you didn’t know that calling the matza “the bread of affliction” is taken directly from the Torah.

The word for “affliction” in Hebrew is “a’-nee,” and refers to being in an oppressive state, such as hardship or poverty. Matza as a key symbol of Pesach would always serve as a reminder of the great suffering in Egypt with or without referring to it as the bread of affliction. But the verse I quoted at the beginning makes it sound as if the matza is not a reminder of the slavery experience but of freedom: “eat it with matza, the bread of affliction – for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste – that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.”

Indeed it was the rush to leave Egypt following the tenth and final plague that is the reason for the eating of matzah. We read:

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders (Shemot/Exodus 12:33-34).

So if the matza is connected with leaving Egypt, why is it not called “the bread of deliverance?” The answer is found a few verses later. Regarding the preparation of the unleavened dough they took with them,

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves (Shemot/Exodus 12:39).

Even though the exodus from Egypt was a momentous liberating event, in its own way it too was a hardship. Anyone who has been released from long-term personal or corporate abuse knows how difficult such transitions can be. Free from slavery, yes, but Israel had to endure a harsh, unknown wilderness with little to no prepared provision. This resulted in all sorts of next-to-impossible challenges to the point that some would eventually pine after their former slavery. Unless they learned to depend on God, they wouldn’t make it. And many didn’t. Almost the entire adult generation that left Egypt were kept from entering the Promised Land due to their unfaithfulness to God (see Bemidbar/Numbers 13 – 14).

After the initial euphoria of newfound freedom subsides, the harsh realities of strange and perhaps hostile environments, a lack of familiar social structures and personal and communal resources must be faced with tenacity and hope for a better future. Whether it be an immigrant from a worn-torn land or someone newly distanced from an abusive situation, denying the reality of the new challenges faced by freedom can create unnecessary obstacles to the benefits of freedom.

The matza does more than simply remind us of the hardship of liberation, however. It is assures us that the God who frees us will give us all we need to face the challenges of newfound freedom. It’s not always easy to walk in freedom, but he who rescues us from bondage, will also equip us to live free.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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But for Passover

For the week of April 20, 2019 / 15 Nisan 5779

Illustration of slaves carrying bricks with the words, "But for Passover"

Pesach 1
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 12:21-51; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah Joshua 5:2-6:1; 6:27

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For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. (Shemot/Exodus 12:23)

When we celebrate Passover, what are we commemorating? We were slaves; now we are free? That goes down well. Celebrating liberation is cool. Good script for a movie. But is that Passover? In a way it is if we consider the larger story. The people of Israel oppressed by an evil ruler to build his cities, subjugating them so that they don’t side with his enemies one day. In spite of his near-to-insane stubbornness, Pharaoh allows his free (to him) workforce to depart after the Angel of Death slays the nation’s firstborn, human and animal. Yet it isn’t until the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army that Israel is finally liberated from Pharaoh’s clutches for good.

That we remember the broader story under the title of Passover is understandable, but it’s all better labeled as “The Exodus” or something else that covers all the various events that resulted in Israel’s freedom. Why then Passover in particular? While the parting of the Sea was the final shutting of the door behind them, it was the death of the firstborn that flung open Israel’s long-time bolted prison door. Israel’s liberation wasn’t won until the tenth and final plague.

Pesach in Hebrew, Passover in English, describes the passing over of God’s final act of judgment on an oppressive regime. Death was coming to each and every home in Egypt. Nine horrific plagues weren’t enough to change Pharaoh’s mind. To think that anyone, no less a leader, would be willing to sacrifice the lives of his people for the sake of his pride. However shocking we may find that, I wonder how different we would be in his situation. Regardless, he was responsible for inviting God’s wrath upon an entire nation, the people of Israel included, but for Passover.

Passover was God’s prescription of protection and rescue. Follow the directions and avoid the inevitable. Whole families were saved from the deadly visitor, because they trusted in God and his word by smearing their doorframes with the blood of the lamb.

Egypt’s plight is the plight of the whole world. The self-centeredness of human beings throughout time has put us out of sorts with the Creator. Whether our dysfunction naturally leads to inevitable trouble or God’s anger burns against our abuse of his beloved creation, the Angel of Death hangs over us all, but for Passover.

We may be too distracted to be aware of the return of the Angel of Death. Whether he’s already come or on our doorstep; he’s not far away from any of us. The Oppressor has subjugated us into doing his bidding and is delighted to keep us in bondage until death has its way with us. But it’s Passover! We don’t need to be slaves to Evil’s agenda any longer. A greater Passover Lamb has come. The Messiah has shed his blood for our liberation. Now, like the Israelites of old, we need to avail ourselves of his protective covering by putting our trust in him. Then we can truly celebrate Passover, not simply to commemorate the ancient Israelites, but to join them as we leave bondage behind.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Restored!

For the week of April 13, 2019 / 8 Nisan 5779

Yellow sponge cleaning a dirty wall with the word "Restored!"

Mezora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Haftarah: 2 Kings/2 Melachim 7:3-20
Updated version of Restoration (originally posted the week of April 15, 2000)

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And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean… (Vayikra/Leviticus 14:7)

According to Torah, victims of certain serious infectious skin diseases became outcasts. The negative social and spiritual consequences must have been devastating. Having the disease was bad enough, but not to be able to engage their community in any way would have made them feel worthless.

While it would have been wonderful to be cured of such diseases, it would have likely taken a great deal of additional time to fully reintegrate. When people suffer such afflictions, it’s common for others to continue to ostracize them, even after their health is restored. The effect of this ordeal would understandably cause the afflicted one to develop a very negative view of self.

This may be one of the reasons for the elaborate cleansing ceremony described in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion). Over and over again the person would hear: “You are clean.”

But not only was their healing to be publicly announced, they would experience complete restoration. A surprising aspect of the cleansing ceremony is that the blood from the sacrifice was to be placed on the cured person’s right ear, thumb, and big toe. The only other time anything like this was done was when the cohanim (English: priests) were set apart for service. So instead of saying to the ex-sufferer, “You can come back now, but don’t get too close,” they were treated most special. After this ceremony everybody would know that they were truly healed, cleansed, restored, and accepted.

This vividly illustrates for us what it means when God restores us to himself through the Messiah. Because of sin in our lives, we don’t have the kind of relationship with God we were designed for. And because of this break in our most basic relationship, we lack the depth of community we were meant to have.

But God’s forgiveness is thorough and complete. When he restores us, he wants us to know that we are fully accepted by him. No longer does he take our past wrongs into account; they are forgotten for good. We are accepted as his children, and he desires to use us in his service.

Note how, in this passage, restoration occurs within the community of God’s people. To experience restoration, we need to publicly acknowledge our sin within a safe and trusting community environment, just as the afflicted needed to reveal their condition. Then we need to hear God’s words of acceptance through others. When this occurs, we can then function in life as we were meant to – restored!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Tune into to TorahBytes Live, Thursday, April 11, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, for further discussion. Alan will explore God’s restorative power and how we can avail ourselves of it. Click on image to set up a notification. Recorded version is available immediately following the live stream.

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Deal with It

For the week of April 6, 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

Mold on wall with spray bottle and scraper with the words, "Dealt with It"

Tazri’a / Rosh Hodesh / Hahodesh
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; Shemot/Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46; Isaiah 66:1-24

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Then he shall examine the disease on the seventh day. If the disease has spread in the garment, in the warp or the woof, or in the skin, whatever be the use of the skin, the disease is a persistent leprous disease; it is unclean. And he shall burn the garment, or the warp or the woof, the wool or the linen, or any article made of skin that is diseased, for it is a persistent leprous disease. It shall be burned in the fire. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:51-52)

As I have studied Torah for most of my life, I have come to see that there is far more to its teachings than the particular details it describes. Don’t get me wrong! The details are extremely important, but the details point beyond themselves to something much greater. I don’t mean that in some esoteric way as if the Bible is a code book of mysteries to be solved (in spite of what some may think!). It’s more straightforward than that. As we absorb its content over time, we are drawn into God’s understanding of the world in which we live. This worldview is not simply one possible way to look at life, but the only truly effective way. The God of Israel – the one who both designed and implemented the creation – is the only one who truly understands how best to negotiate the complexities of living. Through the Scriptures he has revealed that understanding.

Take for example the section of Torah we are in currently. God through Moses establishes strict guidelines with regard to certain infections. Note what’s missing. There is a great lack of spiritualization here. There’s nothing to suggest that people whose bodies or houses were afflicted were to blame in any way. While there was what to do in response, there was no reason to be ashamed of such things. Lack of shame encourages people to not hide their problems but bring them out into the open where they can be dealt with.

Not everything that looks problematic is serious. It was necessary for the general population and the leadership to learn the difference between those things that needed to be cut out and destroyed and others that could be left alone. A culture trained by God in this way would learn to approach all of life in a similar fashion. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to know that negative human behavior can be as infectious as the examples given us in Torah.

In the New Covenant Writings, Paul provides an illustration of this (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). The faith community of the city of Corinth had allowed arrogance and malice to fester. He likened these negative influences to the way leaven pervades dough. Once the fermentation process gets in, it can’t be removed. It affects the entire batch. He therefore calls for a whole new lump of dough.

The problem with Paul’s illustration is when it comes to fermented dough, it’s permanent. If this was really about dough, then “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7), would require throwing out the infected batch and starting with a new one. There’s no way he intends an exact parallel for the Corinthians. He isn’t saying that their community was beyond the point of no return; that they would need to start with a whole new group of people. What he is saying is that the transformative process required to resolve their metaphorical infection was drastic and would, therefore, require a resolve on the part of this community to take their situation seriously. They would have to do whatever was necessary to experience renewal. Thankfully, Paul’s extreme language emphasizes the potential of God’s transformative power available to them (and to us!) through Yeshua the Messiah.

Unless we are willing to identify and deal with potentially destructive issues, they will pervade our lives and spread to our loved ones and communities. God, through Yeshua, offers us complete cleansing. But we need to have the courage to take these things seriously and the wisdom to fully deal with them. While some issues are no big deal, some are. Let’s deal with them before it’s too late.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Tune into to TorahBytes Live, Thursday, April 4, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time for further discussion. We will look at how we can best deal with our personal issues. We will also explore how the specific details of Torah equip us to most effectively engage the world in which we live. Click on image to set up a notification. Recorded version is available immediately following live stream.

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