“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable, which makes you see something you weren’t noticing, which makes you see something that isn’t even visible” — Leo Strauss
“Be here now” —Ram Dass (Richard Alpert)
Following an onslaught of ten powerful plagues, Egypt buckles from the aftermath of its inane obstinance, and the Hebrew slaves see the dawn of freedom breaking over the horizon. Here Moshe’s role changes from that of a redeemer to that of a law-giver. Perashat Bo, therefore, presents us with the first twenty mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.
As we might expect, some of our first mitzvot focus on the nature of liberty and freedom. Two of these prohibit eating or owning hamets (leaven) over Pesah, and command us to eat matzah during that time. The interplay between hamets and matzah is designed to make us mindful and aware of our circumstances. Keeping the mitsvot of hamets and matzah requires us to pay attention and to notice a moment in time that makes an enormous difference.
There is a fine line that separates hamets from matzah. Only a grain that can become hamets can be used to make matzah. This means that while making matzah there is always a danger of it becoming hamets. When flour from wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt comes into contact with water, it can be made into matzah for the next eighteen minutes. After that, it leavens and becomes hamets. The halakhic change at that point is drastic — one can fulfil a great mitzvah with matzah, but Torah prohibits hamets more severely than it does pork. The point at which the change occurs, however, is only a moment, and it can be easily missed. Therefore, there is a command to carefully watch the process of making maztah.
The mindfulness that is demanded in the production of matzah is the mindfulness that is necessary in order to be truly alive and responsive in life. But the human condition does not make it easy. We do not usually stay keenly aware of the environment in which we live, nor do we examine our surroundings anew each day. We tend to take familiar circumstances for granted and assume that things are as they always have been. When we are in that state we are not free, but confined by habit and compelled by the recurring patterns of our thoughts. We are, in essence, running on autopilot.
Awareness must be learned and achieved. It requires being fully conscious and connected to the present moment. It takes a good deal of mental focus and energy, but it is worth it. When we become aware of what is happening inside us and all around us, the world comes alive before us as if we are seeing it for the first time. We experience a fullness in life that otherwise would pass us without being noticed. Most important, perhaps, is that when we are cognisant, we allow ourselves to learn from what life brings us, both in hardship and in joy, and we grow. We then become more in touch with the world and with our deeper selves.
Every day the sun shines, trees sway, traffic stops and starts, people are born and they die, they speak and act, and our pulses keep beating. And moment by moment, life comes to us and challenges us to wake up and notice what is happening. Even if we manage to go back to sleep and tune it all out, life keeps knocking.
Matzah demands that our minds are alert and observant. On the festival of our freedom, bread that results from mental lassitude is off limits. Before stepping out of the physical confines of slavery, we had to step out of the confines of a national psyche that had been lulled to sleep over centuries of an entrenched mentality. The act of baking matzah was our first step into awakening. That bread of freedom became the catalyst for a nation that would live by its commitment to feeling and experiencing life, so that it might connect with the world and live and learn from all of its glorious expressions.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck