Yachatz – Crisis, Conversation and Catharsis

Early on during the Seder, just before we start with מגיד – “Maggid” – the telling of the story of the exodus – we perform the ritual of יחץ – “Yachatz” – “halfing”, where we take the middle Matzah, and break it into two halves. The smaller part is eaten after “Maggid”, to fullfil the Mitzwah of אחילת מצה – “Achilat Matzah” and the larger part is hidden away as the אפיקומן – “Afikoman”, which is eaten at the conclusion of the meal.

Matzah is the most fundamental Mitzwah on Pessach. It is the antitheses to חמץ – “Chametz” which must be completely banned from our environment. The main difference between Matzah and bread is that the latter contains lots of empty space in the form of tiny bubbles which are a byproduct of the process of fermentation. Matzah is bread reduced to its core ingredients. It represents our innermost selves. Our most vulnerable, most authentic selves. Whereas bread is flexible, Matzah breaks easily: when we open up our innermost selves, we make ourselves vulnerable. Every word can hurt us. Therefore we guard ourselves with cynicism and pragmatism. We avoid exposing our innermost selves.

So when during “Yachatz”, we take the innermost Matzah and break it through the middle, we are symbolically performing a tragic rupture of our most vulnerable, innermost selves. We are left devastated. The larger part is hidden away. How can we know who we truly are? How can we ever hope to recover?

This then is the mood that sets the tone for the beginning of the seder: crisis. In fact, the first statement after “Yachatz” spells out the crisis in unambiguous words – we lift up the lesser part of the middle Matzah and proclaim:

הא לחמא עניא די אכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים – “This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.”

There is no gentle introduction. We are immediately confronted with the terrible truth – what is left of your innermost self is essentially: affliction. Why does the seder begin with this radical confrontation with trauma and crisis? The Kotzker Rebbe famously says:

אין דבר שלם מלב שבור – “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart”

In order to become whole, we need to be able to grief. In order to grief we have to confront our trauma, our fear and shame, face on.

Oftentimes it is so painful to be confronted with the truth that most of us never let it happen. The Kotzker Rebbe says:

People are accustomed to look at the heavens and to wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves, to see what happens there.

Paraphrased today we would say that: “People are accustomed to look at facebook and to wonder what happens there…” It is too easy to occupy ourselves with anything but ourselves. This is why we need to be confronted with our shame in such a radical manner.

Regarding our innermost selves, here is how the Midrash relates to the contents of the innermost sanctuary: The first set of tablets, the broken ones were put into the ark of the covenant together with the second, whole tablets. The holiest of holies contains the ultimate expression of brokenness and loss!

Just before the meal we take another piece of Matzah, break it and eat it with Maror. In fact, we stuff the Maror in between two pieces of Matzah and eat it as a sandwich. Again we admit to the bitter reality of our innermost fears and shame and are commanded to – literally – internalize it through our mouths.

The central command of the seder is והגדת לבנך – “and you shall tell your son” – to tell our children about how we left Mitzrayim. The whole seder is codified in the הגדה – “Haggada” – literally the “to be told” and Chazal read the word פסח – “Pessach” as פה סח – “Peh Sach” – the talking mouth.

The first instance in the story of the exodus – as told by the Haggada – of initiating a conversation, happens as a reaction to the deepest trauma:

“…וירעו אתנו המצרים ויענונו ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה. ונצעק” – “And the Mitzrim did evil to us and tormented us and imposed hard labor upon us. And we cried out…”

Reb Shlomo Carlebach comments on the word ונצעק:

You know why we’re never really happy nowadays? Because when we have to cry, we don’t really cry. We’re living in a world where, from a certain age on, you don’t cry. What’s wrong with crying?
We don’t know how to cry. We don’t know how to laugh. We don’t laugh out of joy any more. Children, when they cry, they cry, and when they laugh, they laugh. Friends, I can only tell you: whenever you want to cry, cry with all your heart.

Immediatly after Yachatz and “Ha Lachma Anya”, the seder continues with the “Ma Nishtana”, a series of questions asked by the children and answered by the parents. This is such an important part of the Seder that Jewish law requires an individual who celebrates alone to ask the questions to himself and to answer them himself.

The Kotzker Rebbe says:

דברים היוצאים מן הלב, נכנסים אל הלב. גם ללב ממנו יצאו הדברים – “Words that come from the heart – enter the heart. Even the heart they came from.”

At Yachatz, the larger part of the Matzah is hidden away until after the meal. The Haggada refers to this as צפון – “Tsafun” – the last dish we are permitted to consume. The word צפון – “Tsafun” has the same root as צפון – “Tsafon” and מצפן – “Matspen”, “North” and “Compass” respectively. When we are lost, the compass shows us the direction. In the same way, “Tsafun” – the larger part of ourselves – lies beyond the present. It shows us that even though we need to confront our traumas, there lies hope beyond. Another word with the same root is: מצפון – “Matspun” – “Conscience”. Our conscience is the part of us that tells us how things ought to be, our super-ego. It is an integral part of our identity and it serves as our guidance in times of crisis.

Do we ever reach the point where our self is in complete harmony with itself? Where our id, ego and super-ego are aligned? אין מפטירין אחרי הפסח אפיקומן – “One may not eat desert (Afikoman) after the Pessach offering” – The Afikoman is what actually is never eaten. Rather, we project it into the future. We hide it and let our children search for it as an expression of our hope that the next generation will continue the quest. It is our eternal duty to proclaim that “next year we will be in Jerusalem”.

Another peculiar fact emphasizes this point: We have three holidays – Pessach, Shavuoth and Sukkoth – that celebrate the exodus and the wandering in the desert. When do we celebrate the arrival of the people of Israel to the promised land? There is no such Chag. In fact, the original generation, including Moshe, never made it into Eretz Israel. They just paved the way by continuing the journey. A long, messy and difficult journey. 40 years in the desert, the מידבר – “Midbar” which has the same root as מדבר – “Medaber” – talking. The Haggada itself tells the story of the rabbis that continued their conversation until dawn – a never-ending story.

This then seems to be the remedy to the initial trauma: no quick fix, but enduring, honest conversation. We are commanded to enter a never-ending dialog with our selves and our future selves: the children – the only ones who are truly capable of showing us how to open up our innermost selves without inhibitions. It is this ongoing, interactive story telling: asking/listening to difficult questions, and giving/receiving honest answers that allows us to express and share our grief and eventually get back on the path of hope. It may be that this is why we read in the Haftarah on Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat before Pessach) the famous last words in the book of Malachi – the last of the biblical prophets:

 וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם – “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”

Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky said that the Seder transforms history into biography. It is our duty to honestly grief over the traumas of the past, to confront the crises of the present, to believe in and work for a better future and to pass that memory of tragedy and hope on to the next generation as part of their very own experience. Only reliving the exodus in every generation will bring us closer to catharsis.

The Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, was born 1787 and died 1859. Ca. 30 years later, around 1890 a child was born in Kotzk who was named Menachem Bunim Tashemka, likely in memory of the chassidic Master Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and his famous teacher Simcha Bunim of Pshis’cha. The boy was orphaned by the age of 14. He found shelter in the local Beit Midrash and was raised and nurtured by the Chassidim who studied there.

Soon the boy became a local Torah scholar and married the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Nevertheless they continued to live in extreme poverty.

As the Bolsheviks took over Poland, the family moved to Lublin. The couple had five children, the youngest one was a boy named Moishele who was born in 1918. As the war broke out in 1939, the young Moishele decided – on his own – to cross the border between Poland and Russia and flee eastwards. After he went through a few Russian POW camps he settled in a refugee camp in the eastern part of Kirgistan at the town of Jamboul. There he married another Polish refugee girl named Luba and they had two children, Shlomo and Binyamin, the second one named after his father Bunem who had been shot as soon as the Nazis entered Lublin.

After the war ended, they went back to Lublin only to discover that of his family nobody had survived. Devastated they traveled westwards to Germany in the hope to start a new life in the US or in Palestine. After three years in a displaced persons camp near the city of Zeilsheim, two siblings of Luba had gone to the US and another niece had gone to Palestine.

But Moishe decided to stay in Germany where he had forged connections and where he understood the language. The young family settled in Frankfurt am Main where a third son was born.

In 1964, at the age of 21, Shlomo (Salomon) got married to Marusha Rawicky – a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto – and they had three children. I am the youngest of their children.

And this is how History becomes Biography.

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