Passover, Shavuot and the Breath of Nonviolent Leadership



I feel the humility of Matsah as I eat it. It has no breath, the breath has been sucked out of Matsah. It does not breathe as bread breathes. It is made in the blink of an eye, and yet it is so thick with life and sustenance it miraculously lasts forever, and gives nourishment in any barren impoverished environment. It sits in my stomach, as if it will never leave, it sits in my stomach so much so that I knowing that if God forbid I give it to a small pet it could kill the poor thing. Matsah in some sense is close to death, it is a companion of death. Without breath it is dead, and yet it gives life to the servant and the imprisoned and the refugee who are dead, and who are in need of resuscitation as they are on the run. It gives life without oxygen, it is an anaerobic Messiah, a reviver of the dead, and it does so without the breath of life. It is in that sense a miracle of life from lifelessness.


When I taste and feel the Matsah inside of me I remember the great taskmaster and oppressor, known as Pharoah, but really the oppressor in all of us. He was humbled by his own frail humanity, defeated by plagues he brought on himself. I feel the power of humility and humiliation of Matsah, the lesson of being as the dust of the earth, and I remember the prayer three times a day, May Nafshi, my life/being/essence/flesh, be as dust to all. And I remember the wisdom of Gandhi and so many Asian wisdom traditions that all enlightenment begins with being as a speck of dust. That is what Matsah makes me feel, and I love it.


Sometimes in my travels in between fighting nations I have found myself sitting on small airport floors, chewing on bits of food, including Matsah, and I am reminded….


Shavuot, 49 days later


Every week on Sabbath I look at the two loaves of Challah, beautiful, succulent, rich, and full of hot air, full of the life and spirit of extraordinary taste, and I think of the spirit of the Shavuot vegan sacrifice, and its hint of confidence, accomplishment, wealth and even arrogance. I think of how careful we must be to rise from the ashes of Matsah making to the grandeur of Challah making. I think that it is good to take 49 days for the spirit to rise, to resurrect, because it is so easy for spirit and the breath of life to turn into the bread of arrogance, wealth and oppression.


I think there is no greater image of humility in any one Biblical story than the image of Ruth moving through her difficult and dramatic life. Her origins are so humble, and yet she chooses even greater humility when she becomes devoted to Naomi, with no prospect of safety, security or status. It is an act of sacrifice for love between women that has little parallel in the Bible, and rarely portrayed in ancient literature. And yet this very humble woman from humble origins, who was surrounded by starvation and death, embodies the lifeless Matsah. She, surrounded by death, gives life to her mother-in-law. She revives and resuscitates Naomi at the very beginning of the story when she chooses to sustain her through the desert of wandering to a distant land with no security and no safety. By the end of the story she is the two loaves of Challah, she is the one who will restore family and position and wealth to Naomi. But it is not just to Naomi.


Naomi turns out to be a small player in a much larger drama, the drama of the Messianic Idea, the drama of giving birth to leadership that still has Matsah in the belly. For it is only the leader who has Challah in the mouth and Matsah in the belly who understands how to lead the human community in a spirit of nonviolence, justice and equity between rich and poor.   


The only true way to experience the Judaism of Passover/Shavuot is to have Challah on the lips and Matsah in the belly, to embrace the gift of life, wealth and sustenance only with the conscious feeling and awareness of humility and near-death. Such people can be mature liberated human beings, enlightened beings, and can lead and guide the human community toward greater and greater levels of compassion, justice, and nonviolent life on the sacred earth.


© Marc Gopin