How does hopelessness taste? Not just regular hopelessness — but really down, finished, not-a-prayer-in-the-world hopelessness.
When I was about 20, I backpacked through Europe. I was innocent, not very wise and totally lacking in any world experience. I hitchhiked around for a few months, making my way without any direction or agenda.
In one big city, I was lured into a street gambling scene — people crowded on a corner, raised voices and lots of excitement. Someone was playing the old “pea and shell” game. I stood on the side watching.
Suddenly, the guy next to me shouted, “I know where it is, I got it!” He turned to me quickly and said, “Put your hand on this shell while I get my money out.”
Totally clueless and wanting to be a nice guy, I put my hand on the shell. In a flash, everyone started screaming at me: “You got it! You got it! Get your money out. You’ll win!”
I took out my wallet and put a pile of cash on the shell. You can guess the rest of the story. It was all a racket. Everyone was in on it, waiting for the next gullible target to appear.
Irrevocably etched into my memory is the split-second before the shell was picked up when I realized that I was going to lose. I suddenly had this parched, cotton-like feeling in my mouth. Every drop of water had been sucked out of me. I couldn’t chew or swallow.
In that moment, I tasted hopelessness. We revisit this taste every Passover. It’s the taste of matzah: a dry, stuck-in-your-throat kind of feeling.
The Haggadah begins by telling us that the Jewish people ate matzah in Egypt: “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.”
Did they actually eat matzah? Or did all of their food become utterly tasteless because of their hopelessness? When there is no hope at all, everything becomes parched and dry.
What is the point of eating when condemned to slavery? Slavery decimates our bodies; hopelessness decimates our souls.
Passover is not only about a people’s physical liberation from slavery. It is also about a people’s spiritual liberation from hopelessness.
When the Jews in Egypt groaned and called out, it’s remarkable that they didn’t even call out to God. They had given up on praying. Where had God been during their suffering? Even God couldn’t help them. There was no hope of getting out of slavery, not even the hope of a miracle. Every day was eating the bread of affliction, dry and stale.
What is the message of Passover? In a world of hopelessness, like a bolt of lightning from the heavens, hope can come out of nowhere. Hope can happen in a flash.
A Hebrew word characterizes the recovery of hope — chipazon.
The Jews left Egypt b’chipazon, in the flash of a moment. Although they were told of their freedom at night and left in the middle of the next day, although they had time to gather the belongings they would use in the desert, nevertheless, they left b’chipazon.
Passover’s message is the birth of hope. Even when we believe that a situation is utterly unsolvable, bereft of hope and not even worth praying about, nevertheless, somehow, in a flash of a moment hope can reappear.
The taste of matzah has prevailed for centuries. So many times we have lost hope. And then, in a moment, hope returns.
The questions at our seder table this year will be:
• Which moments or issues facing the Jewish people caused you to lose hope this year?
• How did you find hope? Who gave you hope?
And, most important:
• How do you give hope to others?
There are so many issues today — social, religious, political, security — facing the Jewish people and Israel that appear to be hopeless to solve. So many times during the past year I have had the dry, suffocating taste of matzah in my mouth.
Then Pesach calls and summons us once again to awaken to hope — “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.”
And hope, in a sparkling flash, returns.
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David is the founder and director of Ayeka, the Jerusalem-based Center for Soulful Education, and has been working with rabbis and educators in Philadelphia, including the Kohelet Yeshiva High School.