Wine, Matzah and Tchaikovsky

by | Feb 19, 2004

This year, as you sit down to the Seder table, ask yourself a question:
Exactly what should I be thinking about as I take that first bite of matzah
or first drink of wine? What kind of experience do the authors of the
Haggadah want me to have?

We all know that Pesach is a moed of symbols. From Matzah to Marror , from
wine to charoses; everything we eat at the Seder represents something;
nothing is “just food”. The themes
of these symbols are familiar to us: Matzah represents the bread that
baked on our forefathers’ backs; wine is the drink of free men. But their
deeper meaning seems oddly vague.

Early in the Seder, the Haggaddah instructs us to declare: “This is poor
man’s bread; the bread our forefathers ate when they were enslaved in
Egypt…”. The image we find here is that of slavery. But read on. Later in
the Seder, the Haggaddah tells us: “This matzah –why do we eat it? Because the Holy
One redeemed our forefathers [from Egypt] before their dough could rise.”
Clearly, the picture now is one of redemption: Matzah symbolizes the
speed with which we became free men. What, then, is the meaning of this
matzah that we eat? Slavery or freedom? What mental picture are we meant to
conjure as we eat this food?

Curiously, the same paradox asserts itself in another fixture of the
Seder: The drinking of wine. We know that the four cups of wine
commemorate the four words God used when committing Himself to redeem the
Jews. Evidently, then, this wine symbolizes freedom. Yet we are also told
that the wine commemorates the blood of Jewish children cast in the Nile
— one of the most painful moments of our slavery.

So what, then, does this mean? As we take that bite of matzah or sip
of wine, what should go through our minds? Seemingly, we are asked to somehow
experience slavery and freedom together. But is this really possible? And
even if it is — what would be the point of such a muddled mental game?

Perhaps the idea can be illuminated with an analogy.

Most of us have, at one point or another, heard a tape or performance
of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. This classic work was commissioned by the
Czar to commemorate Russia’s victory over France in the war of 1812. It
tells the story of historical battles through the medium of music, and so its
not inaccurate to call the piece one long musical symbol.

Now, one might wonder: What makes this piece a classic? It actually
contains almost no original music whatsoever. Tchaikovsky simply took two
national anthems — the French and the Russian — and some Russian folk
and spliced everything together. Where is the genius here?

The genius, it seems, is all in the arrangement. Near the beginning of
the overture, we hear the bold notes of the French national anthem mixed
with Russian folk songs: The French have invaded the Russian villages.
The folk songs are played in minor keys, as the music conveys the pain
and bitterness of defeat. For a while, the French continue their musical
but shortly thereafter they are met by the Czarist National Anthem. The
music gathers strength, and in a final clash, the Russian theme prevails; the
Russians have been victorious over the French. At the end, we hear the same
Russian folk songs once again — but this time, they are played triumphantly,
in major keys.

What is the cumulative effect? The message of the music, I think, is that one
truly appreciate victory if one has never experienced defeat. Indeed, it
is only through defeat that freedom gains its full meaning. The final flurry
of folk songs conveys the exultation of the villagers — but it is an
laced with the painful memories of past suffering. As we hear the folk songs
played joyously, we are reminded of how, earlier, they were played mournfully.
The victory is more meaningful because it contains within it the memories
of loss.

And so it is with the symbols of the Seder. The matzah and wine are
living, breathing symbols. For in the same bite that they offer us freedom,
they also let us taste the faint memories of abject slavery. Our joy is
three-dimensional, rich and alive: We know what it means to be free because
at the same time, we remember what it means to be slaves. Indeed, the words
we say in the Haggadah teach this lesson to our minds. But through
the foods we eat on that night, we learn it with our senses as well.