During my senior year of college, I had a college roommate, Chuck, who was in the Army ROTC. Frequently, I would get back from class, and the floor of our room would be covered in a camouflage tarp. There would be muddy boots in the corner. And usually, there were soggy fatigues hanging from a hook after an intense morning of doing drills. It was not uncommon for me to discover Chuck, and another ROTC friend sitting in front of the TV, watching SportsCenter while eating something out of these brown envelopes. The food did not look appetizing, at all. They explained to me these were MRE’s. Meals Ready to Eat. They were trying them out as part of their training. A combat soldier could carry several in a backpack. They included a main course, some sweets, and powdered drinks, even coffee. Many of the MREs even came equipped with small heating contraptions so a soldier could have a hot meal, like spaghetti and meatballs, or chili, or even a veggie omelette. It seemed pretty gross to me, but Chuck seemed to enjoy it. I dare say, in hindsight, I think Chuck was proud to be eating an MRE because it was a sign of his special commitment to being part of our armed forces. Having that kind of pride, even though it cannot save every meal, has to make food taste better. At their core, MREs ought not be considered fine dining. The purpose of army rations, from the doughboys of World War I to the K rations of World War II and Korea were designed to provide basic sustenance for a soldier on the go. Flavor and variety were not part of the initial goal. Survival was. About 40 years ago, the MRE was designed to be lightweight, with the elimination of metal cans, and compact so a soldier could carry more of them into the field. An initiative to improve the taste and variety only began when it was discovered soldiers were consuming only 60% of the calories. The MREs became known as Meals rejected by everyone, or Meals refusing to Exit. So, improving the flavor, though a bonus, was not about gastronomy– again it was merely a question of survival. In a field of combat, a soldier needs to be able to eat fast, when the opportunity arises, and they need to be sustained so they can fulfill their duties. The MREs, I am sure, are far from perfect. But they are designed to get the job done.
I am thinking about this because tonight, according to Reform Jewish practice, is the conclusion of Passover. If you look at the service handout, you will see that is how I named this sermon. The Torah portion is Acharei Mot, which means after the death [of Aaaron’s sons]. It tells us how Aaron must move on from his period of mourning back to his regular duties. In a similar vein, tonight we think of Acharei, which means after, Matzah. Acharei Matzah, the time after Matzah. We transition away from Matzah and return to eating bread, and let me just say, “We all need to chill out.” It’s seven days—eight if you want to be super strict. And Matzah, according to our tradition, is a way of remembering the Exodus. In our flight from slavery, our ancestors did not have the luxury of baking full loaves of bread, so they just took unrisen matzah from the ovens and left. You might call Matzah the original MRE. It was not designed for flavor. It was however designed for expediency and sustenance. And as the Israelites escaped, they were not regretting the absence of bread. We can be pretty sure they were grateful for the Matzah they carried in their packs because having it, at the very least, meant another day of survival. Absent other choices, flour and water baked in 18 minutes can be the most delicious meal because they are forever tied to the great moment of redemption.
For millenia, we have enhanced our telling of the Passover story by eating Matzah. We are supposed to feel as though we ourselves are being freed from bondage, and words do not suffice. Sitting comfortably in our homes or in Feinstein Hall, it is hard to recreate the feeling of being freed. Yes, we eat bitter herbs and dip things in salt water, but Matzah takes the story telling to the next level. It reminds us of the urgency. We cannot create the adrenaline rush of rushing from our homes at a moment’s notice and entering into an uncertain future. We can however eat the bread hastily made, unleavened and plain. It augments our understanding of the moment by simulating the rush. Matzah is a pretty powerful food, and so if, like my old roommate Chuck with his MRE, we can eat Matzah with pride, adding flavor to it that no measure of salt or pepper can match.
So like I said, as Passover ends, let’s all just chill out. It was not a fast. We only refrained from eating certain foods, and in the process, we replaced them with others. We are fortunate to have had this opportunity because it invited us to explore new ways to fulfill our nutritional needs. Let us ponder this for a moment, without Matzah, we would have never Matzah Ball soup– one of the greatest Jewish discoveries, second only to the Salk vaccine. And I can tell you, the sense of urgency with my birthday on Day 2 of Passover, led my wife to a flourless chocolate cake recipe which was outstanding. So a little self denial can actually lead us to a place of incredible indulgence.
More than anything, we can think of eating Matzah as a privilege. While during a seder, it is a commandment, with every Jew being required to eat at least a small portion of matzah, after the seders, Matzah becomes a choice. Matzah and Kosher for Passover products are luxury items. When we choose to eat matzah, and are blessed to have the means to acquire it, it is a great privilege. Generally, however, we do not talk like people who feel blessed. We treat Matzah as, “The bread of affliction.” It is time we change our attitude about Matzah, to see it as a blessing, not a curse, As an honor, transcending commandment, a way of setting this time apart from the rest of the year as we the Jewish community observe a practice that sets us apart from the rest of the world.
And when we make the choice, embracing our privilege during the week of Passover, we open the door to another great Mitzvah. We get to educate the world about the holiday’s important themes. When we go to school or work and refrain from bread and cakes, instead pulling out our matzah sandwiches and our charoset and even our macaroons, we spark the interest of people around us. This is truly the essence of Passover, to tell the story and to continue learning from it year after year. Just like when we ask the four questions at the seder table, saying why is this night different from all other nights, when we eat Matzah but not chametz, we invite our non-Jewish friends and neighbors to ask us what it is all about. In those moments, we get to share our pride in who we are as Jews and to revel in the ever-unfolding power of the holiday. Memory. We remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and therefore in every generation, we eat matzah to remind ourselves the urgency of helping the oppressed wherever they are.
As this Passover, the chag ha-matzoth, draws to a close, let us reflect on the week and re-focus our thoughts on the privileges and blessings the holiday provided. Then as were-enter the normal part of our culinary lives, we can do so with a renewed sense of perspective, blessing, and gratitude.