Post Passover Ponderings and the Meaning of Life

Life Is Like The Broken Matzah of the Afikoman

I heard an inspiring teaching by Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee about the Passover afikoman. Even though Passover has come and gone for this year, I wanted to share this insight because it says something very powerful about how we view life.

What Does the Word Afikoman Mean?

The Gemara Pesachim 119b says afikoman is derived from the phrase afiku mani, meaning to ‘take out the vessels’. When the Jewish people sacrificed their Pascal lamb in the Temple, each person joined a group of people with whom they eat the lamb. It had to be eaten in one location. A person couldn’t start eating his portion in one place then take it to another place to eat with another group. In another insight, Rav Shmuel says that afikomen means that one may not eat anything after the meal was eaten. Hence, the afikoman is the last bite eaten. Indeed, our afikoman matzah is the last thing we eat at the Passover seder. 

Two Meanings of the Afikoman

The Bread of Affliction…

Early in our seder, we take a perfectly whole matzah and break it. The larger broken piece of matzah is called the afikoman. We then hold up this afikoman matzah and say ‘This is the bread of affliction’…etc. This piece of matzah is then put away, or hidden depending on family custom. We then talk about how we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, how we suffered, and how miserable everything was. Clearly this piece of matzah represents hardship and suffering. 

The Bread of Joy…

At the end of the Passover seder, the afikoman seems to undergo a transformation. The afikoman is distributed to the seder participants and eaten. The third cup of wine is poured, psalm 126 is recited followed by the Grace After Meals, where we thank G-d for the food He has given us. This psalm and prayer is recited joyfully as we look forward to the future redemption of the Jewish people, returning to our land in peace, and serving G-d in the Temple once again. 

The Split Personality Afikoman

My split personality. Should I be happy or sad?

What’s up with this broken piece of matzah? At the beginning of the Passover seder, the afikoman reminds us of suffering. At the end of the seder, this same piece of matzah reminds us of the joy of redemption and happiness. 

Which emotion defines the afikoman? Misery, happiness, or both? And why do we need to break a nice whole matzah into two pieces? Why can’t we just use two already broken pieces of matzah? After all, most boxes of matzah have broken pieces inside. Why waste a whole one? 

A Perspective On Life

Rabbi Twerski explains that the matzah used for the afikoman represents how people view life. Most people view life in two parts, the good part and the bad part. And the bad part is usually the bigger part. If I were asked to describe my life in a nutshell, I’d probably put my life’s experiences into two boxes. The good memories go into one box and the bad memories go in the other one. And why is it that the box with the bad memories always seems like it has more inside?

Joy While Still Suffering

Rabbi Twerski points out that even before the Jews left Egypt, G-d told them to make the Passover seder of redemption. In other words, they were celebrating their exit from slavery while still in slavery. They didn’t march out of Egypt till the following morning.

As the Alter Rebbe says in Tanya ‘… no evil descends from above and everything is good, though it is not apprehended because of its immense and abundant goodness.’ Rabbi Twerski says that, with our myopic spiritual vision, we don’t see life as a whole entity of goodness.

round passover matzah on white background

Like the afikoman matzah, we break life into two pieces, sometimes a good one and sometimes a not so good one. In reality it’s one whole life and it’s all good.

An Additional Insight From the Meaning of the Word Afikoman

As we learned earlier, one of the rules for bringing the Passover sacrifice to the Temple was that a person couldn’t begin eating his portion in one location with one group of people then move to another location to eat with another group. This reminds me of the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ concept, where I figure if I could just change my place, things would be better. Although there is a Hebrew saying ‘shinui makom, shinui mazal’ which means ‘change your place, change your luck’, I feel there s a deeper meaning to this phrase rather than to just say that changing my physical location will make life better.

The Hebrew word makom, place, also refers to G-d because He is the ‘place’ of everything, ie, everything exists within Him. I can never change my location in that I can never be where G-d is not. But I can change how I relate to Him.

Maybe that’s my key to a better life. I’ll try to work on bettering my relationship with people and G-d within the framework of an ‘unbroken’ vision of life that, at times, can be like a roller coaster ride. May we all merit to attain clarity of purpose and the physical and emotional strength to attain joy amidst our ups and downs, joys and sorrows.

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