Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Lord is My Chef (and the secret ingredient is Matzah)

(Learn Torah With Commentary for the portion of Bo, 1998)

In the world of outdoor barbecues, the most delicious thing imaginable is a mushy concoction called the S'more, given that name because invariably, those who consume one demand "some more." Had Hillel only known about this incredible blend of melted chocolate and (kosher) marshmallows surrounded by graham crackers, his Matzah, horseradish and Haroset sandwich would never have been invented.

In world of national Jewish liberation, an almost identical word clues us in to God's most delicious contribution. When one imagines the divine part in the Exodus, the metaphors that first come to mind might include "Masked Avenger," "Flaming Sword," or perhaps "Raging Sea." But a closer look shows us that the most appropriate role to assign God in this drama would be that of Cosmic Chef. And the key word is "Sh'mor."

In chapter 12, a pivotal section containing instructions for present and future Passover observances, a form of "Sh'mor," which means "watch" or "guard," appears no fewer than five times, each with clear culinary overtones. In verse 6, the Paschal sacrifice is to be "an examination" ("mishmeret") for Israel during the days leading to its being slaughtered, roasted and eaten on the 14th of the spring month. Rashi says that "mishmeret" refers to inspecting the animal closely for blemishes that could render it unfit. One could imagine a modern Rashi at Stop and Shop or Waldbaums on the day before Pesach, investigating each head of romaine in the produce section for microscopic bugs. It takes a discriminating shopper to prepare the perfect meal.

Then in verse 17, we are instructed to safeguard ("U'shmartem") the Matzot -- a great play on the expression "U'shmartem et ha mitz'vot," ("You shall observe the commandments"). We safeguard Matzah both in the meticulous methods of preparation and in our eagerness to fulfill the commandment by eating it early on the first day of the festival. As for me, well I respond to this instruction by being a "shmart" shopper, making sure that the box of "Sh'mura" Matzah doesn't end up beneath the jug of Manischewitz wine in one of my twenty five bags of overpriced Passover goodies.

Verse 24 says "U'shmartem et ha-davar," and verse 25, "U'shmartem et ha-avoda." These verses demand that we recall how the sprinkled blood from the Pesach offering saved each Israelite household and that this reminding ritual, later known as the Seder, should be observed perpetually and scrupulously. Verse 25 means, "You shall watch the work," and I can recall paying scrupulous attention to my parents' preparations; how I savor the memories of my mother making the gefilte fish in that big metal pot on the day before the Seder -- although I never actually ate the stuff.

And in verse 34, we read that the food from the original Seder was so good that the Israelites actually doggie-bagged the leftovers and brought them out of Egypt.

But where is God in all this? Up until now we've been provided with the key ingredients of the recipe, specifically the lamb and the crackers, the protein and the starch. Finally, in verse 42, we meet the Chef. Why was this night different from all others? Because after 430 years of watching Israel ferment as a nation, Le Grande Chef decided that the time had finally arrived to remove the Israelite cake from the infernal Egyptian oven and let it cool. "Layl Shimurim hu l'Adonai" it is called, "A night of watching for God."

Rashi sees "Shimurim" as "anticipation," implying that God had anticipated this night for centuries, the chance finally to fulfill the Covenant of Redemption made with Abraham. Or it can mean "protection," for on this night God protected Israel from the terrible tenth plague.

But for me all the previous ties between "Shmor" and food confirm that on "Layl Shimurim" God was neither a guard nor the original Promise Keeper, but rather a housewife --er, house-spouse -- in the kitchen. For anyone who has ever cooked anything, there comes a moment of truth, that can't-turn-back instant when the souffle is either going to stand firm or fall, when the main dish will either be spectacular it won't. Not even an expectant parent is as nervous as the host of the Seder when the oven timer goes off. This Night of Watching was God's most anxious moment since that Night of Resting following the sixth day of creation, when God looked around and saw that it was very good. Only then could God rest from Creation. God has yet to rest from the Exodus. On this night, the sacred dish was either going to turn out to be the most delicious S'more imaginable or a rancid, unkosher, unholy mess.

Was Israel ready for freedom? Would they make it through the Wilderness? Could they ever get beyond their petty complaints or would their fear ultimately engulf them? Which enemy would pose the greatest threat, Amalek or self-doubt? That's what was keeping the Chef awake that long night.

And at each Seder we ask the same questions: Is this family ready to go out and bring Torah into the world (add more sweet-smelling cinnamon to the Haroset)? Have they internalized the lessons we've been feeding them since infancy (add milk...)? Do they love Israel (...and honey)? Are they willing to stand up for themselves as Jews (Matzah balls)? Has our people risen to this generation's unprecedented opportunities to bring holiness (bagels) to the world? These are questions that not even the wise child (except possibly Julia) could answer.

God the Avenger and God the Shepherd can make a mid-course correction if things don't work out. God the Cook can not turn back the egg timer so easily, nor can parents and teachers. Once the dish is done, the dish is done. But we humans have a distinct advantage: We get to cook the meal again and again, every year, until we get it right. For God on E-Night, it was a one-shot deal, and this was a recipe never before attempted: Nation of Priests Flambee.

Let's take a quick look at those essential final ingredients, added to the mix in our portion. The roasted lamb was the starring attraction, but without a pinch of something extra, the Matzah, we'd have been left with n'more than a super barbecue.

On the face of it, Matzah was absolutely unnecessary at the time. But like any culinary masterpiece, and for that matter like the best wines, headache pills and rabbinic sermons, the most important ingredient is the one that can't be tasted right away. It is the lingering sensation of the wine that stays with us long after the intoxication has worn off. And I often thank God for videotaped Bar/Bat Mitzvah charges, because I know that the child before me won't really get what I'm saying until he watches the thing five years later. The Matzah is tasteless, but it never leaves you. Almost everything we eat is expelled from the digestive system less than a day later. On Passover it takes two days. For Matzah, it never happens. Trust me. It never leaves.

How do I know that Generation Ex. didn't need Matzah? Because they had lamb chops. Because they had enough chevre to open a chain of cafes in Beverly Hills. We shouldn't believe this "bread of poverty" stuff; if the Israelites were so poor, why was Moses so reluctant to leave the cattle and sheep behind and take the entire nation to freedom, as Pharoah offered just before the tenth plague? Lots of innocent first born sons could have been saved if Moses had said, "OK Ramses, we've got a deal, I take the people and you take the cattle." But he didn't. I would contend that Israel became as wealthy in Egyptian servitude as Jacob had under Laban, that their "slavery" was far more metaphysical than physical.

And finally, what was awaiting them just a few days down the road, on the other side of the Red Sea? Manna! Better than bread! A perfect complement for their abundant chevre. The last thing they needed was Matzah.

But Matzah was exactly what the recipe called for, what the Chef required and what we need too. Aside from being undigestable, Matzah leaves a permanent mark outside of our intestines: the crumbs. Those magical crumbs are Jewish Pixie Dust. On Passover, they are everywhere: on carpets, in the car, in the school cafeteria, in our teeth. Some would call them the eleventh plague, as ubiquitous as frogs and lice..."crumbs here, crumbs there, Matzah crumbs are everywhere." The Israelites left a Matzah crumb trail from Egypt to Canaan by way of Sinai, and, fortunate Hansels and Gretels that we are, the trail sticks (no wilderness wildlife will touch the stuff) so we can retrace it every year.

This is the secret ingredient that allows us to rise. When we point to the crumbs on the carpet, our co-workers, classmates and teachers learn the magnificent story we have to tell. When we floss thrice daily and curse those omnipresent crumbs, we recall who we are and why we're here. Matzah wasn't really needed, but the Chef de Chevre knew that this holy concoction required S'more. Could even the most ingenious human culinary creator have come up with so perfect an additive? Is there any better argument for the existence of God?

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