It was the day before Passover. I walked into the prison, a box of matza under each arm.
“I’m here to see these inmates,” I said while handing the officer a piece of paper with two scribbled names.
I knew virtually nothing about the people I was visiting. All I knew was that they had expressed a great desire to be Jewish. This is not uncommon in a prison, where people are often in search of meaning. I was there to talk to them about Judaism, bring them matzah and to determine the sincerity of their newfound faith.
The guard buzzed me in and escorted me to a room about the size of a New York City kitchen. It was furnished with wooden chairs and an old tube-top TV.
Two minutes later, men in their thirties entered the room donning orange outfits. They stared curiously at the matza in my hand.
This is the bread of affliction, I said. It’s the meager meal of slaves just trying to get through each day within the confines of Egyptian bondage. One man looked down at his orange jumpsuit, and up at me. The irony wasn’t lost on me either.
This matzah, I explained, is the bread of affliction. The Haggadah teaches that our ancestors ate it on long hard days of labor. They craved longingly for anything other than this near flavorless cracker. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, meaning narrowness. As they ate the matza of affliction, they felt the narrowness of world and yearned for something more.
It is curious then that this very same matza is later called the bread of freedom. When the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, we learn, they didn’t have enough time to allow the bread to rise, so they ate matzah. The same bread they despised every day of their lives became the bread that gave them hope and filled their hearts with appreciation.
“It is not unusual for ex-slaves to invert the very symbols of slavery to express their rejection of the masters’ values.” Irving Greenberg wrote. “But there is a deeper meaning in the double-edged symbolism of matzah. It would have been easy to set up a stark dichotomy: matzah is the bread of the Exodus way, the bread of freedom; hametz is the bread eaten in the house of bondage, in Egypt. Or vice versa: matzah is the hard ration, slave food; hametz is the rich, soft food to which free people treat themselves. That either/or would be too simplistic. Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread.
The difference between the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom is not in the bread itself, but rather in our state of mind. When we take stock of our world, do we feel stuck in a place of narrowness, or struck by the free expanse before us?
Just before Passover, we rid our homes of chametz—of all leavened products. Perhaps even more important is the work we do within. As we take stock of the bread, cookies and cheerios that somehow linger years after little hands have lost interest, we take stock of ourselves as well.
“The Passover journey isn’t just a historical journey;” writes Greenberg. “it’s one we take every year of our lives. And it isn’t just an external journey; in order to have true meaning, it needs to change us on the inside, where freedom really matters. The difference between slavery and freedom, between constriction and expansion, is our state of mind.”
An inmate looked at me with tears in his eyes.
“Yes. That’s what I needed to hear. It’s like its talking about us in prison. You’re talking about me.”
“Yes,” I replied. “And I’m talking about every one of us.”
All of us make mistakes that land us in prisons, real or metaphorical. We get stuck in patterns that harm us, patterns often difficult to break, patterns that take over and start to define us. Perhaps we smoke or drink to excess. We let our anger get the better of us. Perhaps we devote too much time to work and not enough to family. Perhaps we don’t believe in ourselves enough, or we get haughty and are unwilling to compromise. Each of us has a prison holding us back from being truly free and reaching our full potential. And each of us, with time and help, can change that.
As we left the room, one of the men smiled at me and said: “I have some thinking to do, but I feel a little freer already.” So may it be for all of us.