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Matzah - the unleavened bread of the Passover Festival – has become the symbol of freedom. It follows the Jewish People all over the globe. What message does it continue to deliver to us each year?
King Bernard was an avid hunter. On one of his forays into the royal forest looking for game, he chanced upon a shepherd by the name of Jonathan. After a long discussion with the young man, his highness found him to be knowledgeable and highly intelligent.
“We should like you to join our personal staff,” he told Jonathan. “Report to the palace next week and we shall discuss your duties.”
So it was that the former shepherd became a familiar figure at the palace. Indeed, he made himself useful to the royal family, and quickly advanced from rank to rank.
A number of years passed. Jonathan had risen to become an important member of the court. When illness forced the minister of the treasury to retire, King Bernard chose Jonathan to replace him.
The reaction at court to Jonathan's appointment was not all positive. He was the youngest of the ministers; some of the more veteran members of the court felt that they themselves were far more suitable candidates for this prestigious post. Many gave vent to their jealousy through venomous whisperings against the new upstart. Then rumors began to spread that Jonathan had appropriated funds from the royal treasury for his own use.
At first, the king refused to listen to this idle talk. Eventually, the undercurrent rose to the surface. The king realized that the matter must be resolved for once and for all. It was decided that his highness, accompanied by a small group of ministers and advisors, would visit Jonathan at his home, unannounced, and conduct a search of the premises. Had the new minister indeed dipped his hand into the royal treasury and betrayed his highness' trust?
When the royal visitors arrived at Jonathan's home, they were astounded to discover how humbly the minister and his family were living. At the king's request, Jonathan took the royal party on a tour of his home. The house was not overly large, and its furnishings were those of a moderately well-to-do businessman. There were none of the ostentations trappings that were commonplace in the homes of the aristocracy of the time.
The royal party took note of the situation, and reserved judgment for the time being.
As they were about to leave, they suddenly came across a small room that their host had not shown to them. “What is this?” they asked Jonathan.
“It's my private retreat,” answered Jonathan. “I like to have a spot where I can retire and be on my own, with no interruptions. I do not allow anyone else to enter. My family know that when I am inside this private room, they must wait patiently until I come out; no one is allowed to disturb.”
“Might we have a look inside?” asked one of the visitors, suspicious as to what he might find there.
Jonathan shook his head. “I'm afraid not. This room is precious to me and I would like to keep it private.”
The ministers exchanged knowing glances. “This must be where he has hidden the stolen funds,” they thought to themselves. “Of course he does not allow us to go inside, or to even open the door. He fears that we will realize that he is a thief.”
Jonathan's secrecy about this special room put his majesty in an uncomfortable position. Although he himself would have preferred to honor Jonathan's wishes, it was obvious that the others found the room highly suspicious.
“We should like to see the interior of this room, nonetheless,” stated the king.
Jonathan did not step forward to open the door. “I am ashamed to reveal to you what is inside,” he answered. “Even the members of my own family and household are not allowed inside. Please do not force me to open the door.”
“Nonetheless, we ask you to show us what is inside,” insisted the king.
Jonathan had no choice. He took out the key, went to the door, and opened it. The guests all drew near to have a look inside. Their eyes opened wide in surprise. The room was nearly empty. There were no royal treasures secreted within. The walls were bare, and the only piece of furniture was a simple, low stool. On it lay a shepherd's staff, a shepherd's flute, and a simple rucksack.
One after another, the members of the delegation stepped forward, took a look at the room, surveyed every corner, and stepped back. It took the men a moment to realize how mistaken they had been. Then all eyes turned to Jonathan, hoping for an explanation.
The young Minister of the Treasury looked down at the floor and began to speak: “Ever since the day when his majesty took me from my flock and brought me to the royal palace, I have feared that I will fall into the pit of pride and haughtiness. I knew that I must take steps to protect myself. Therefore, I decided to make it a practice to close myself in this private room each morning, before I set out for the palace. I sit on this stool with my bag on my back, and my staff at my side, and play the flute just as I used to do while tending the sheep. It helps me not to forget that basically, I am but a humble shepherd; it is only through Heaven's great kindness that I found favor in the eyes of the king, who took me away from the pastures and brought me to his house.
“I use this moment of introspection to bring home the message that it is not 'my strength and the power of my hand' which have bettered my lot so dramatically, but only G-d's kindness and His boundless mercy for His creatures.”
The sight of the room, and Jonathan's explanation of its purpose, changed the attitude of the ministers altogether. They asked their host to forgive them for the intrusion, and took their leave with a new appreciation of the shepherd turned royal minister.
One of the points of the Seder on Passover is to ensure that we not think it was our own prowess or diplomacy which freed us from Egyptian bondage. When we were enslaved in Egypt, we were in no position to help ourselves. Only because G-d took mercy on us are we free men today.
The matzah has accompanied us throughout all the years of our exile. It is with us throughout the evening, as we read the story of our enslavement and our redemption, to implant in our hearts the renewed awareness of the fact that it was G-d, and G-d alone, who took us out of Egypt and gave us our freedom.