Thursday, January 29, 2009

Parshat Bo: The Thing which Matza is Not.

ויאפו את הבצק אשר הוציאו ממצרים עגת מצות כי לא חמץ כי גרשו ממצרים ולא יכלו להתמהמה וגם צדה לא עשו להם

They baked the dough that they brought from Egypt [into] unleavened cakes, for it had not risen, because they were kicked out of Egypt and could not tarry and also did not make provisions for themselves.

We know about Matzah. Hard, dry, square things that come in a box from Manischewitz or Streit's. It was on my family's seder table all the time I grew up.

I recently switched to Shmurah matza for the seder. Big round things, not real uniform, without the perforation or machine-cuts of the Streits' stuff. It feels closer to what this verse describes. Flour and water, hastily baked by a nation in flight. It really gets to the bone of what matza is. But we are missing something, I think.

What is this matzah not? By which I mean, if it had had the time to leaven (sour, really. The root חמץ means "went sour" more than it means "leaven") and rise and be baked properly, what would the product have become? One thing I'm certain of - it would not have become Wonder Bread, nor Baguettes, nor Challah.

What it would become I learned the week before last passover, where I stopped into a place called "Queen of Sheba" thinking to get some falafel or something, only to discover that it was and Ethiopian cafe. Well, having gone in, and perused the menu, I settled on a boneless lamb stew. I knew that I would betray a horrible American-ness if I used the flatware that was condescendingly placed at my table. When the food arrived, there was the stew, and there was this huge, round, soft, flat bread pockmarked with bubbles. I ripped a piece of it and used it to pick up some of the stew. It was a sourdough. Made of teff. Really absorbent. Injira.

I was delighted. I knew, in a deep down knowing that this was the thing the shmurah matza was not. It was חמוץ - sour. It was tender. And it was perfectly suited to picking up stewed meat with one's fingers. I sat eating it thoughtfully - this was the meal that Abraham served the visitors, these the "cakes" that Sarah prepared. And the shemurah matzah? The unleavened cakes that Lot had on hand.

When I sat down at the Seder, I knew precisely what I was missing - a tangy crepe like bread replaced by bread that shatters. And I may have acquired a new custom - to eat Ethiopian in the week before pesach.

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