A Passover Message from Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
Members of the extended Atlanta Jewish community expresses their thoughts about the 2023 Passover holiday, using the prompt, "Unity Creates Community."
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Toco Hills.
Has Life Enslaved You?
Has life enslaved you? Do you ever feel stuck—shackled by life’s pressures? Are you stuck in a job you don’t want and feel your dreams slipping away? How many times have we felt inspired to make a change and said to ourselves, “That’s it, I’m done. I’m ready to start exercising, start a diet, get off my phone, off social media and just spend more time with my children, my family?” And then we find ourselves right back where we started. How do we break free? This is what Passover is all about.
You see Passover is much more than the holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzraim, comes from the word meytzarim (constraints). Passover is the time where each of us can break free from whatever is constraining us—holding us back. That’s why there are three essential words that we are commanded to internalize and explain at our seders. They are the three steps to personal freedom: and they are Pesach, matzah, and Mara.
“Pesach” literally means that G-d passed over our homes and saved us. Kabbalah teaches that Pesach is a conjunction of two words, peh (mouth) and sach (talking): peh sach, a “talking mouth.”
We were enslaved in the hands of Pharaoh. Pharaoh, or Paroh in Hebrew, is also a conjunction of two words, peh (mouth) and rah (evil) or “evil talk.” How many times do we enslave ourselves with negative speech? And I don’t only mean lashon hara (gossip). It’s also when we put ourselves down saying, “I can’t do it. It’s not for me.”
The first step to liberating ourselves is having positive speech. Pump yourself up. Tell yourself when you’re challenged, “I can do it. I got this.” If you do that, you’ll be taking the first step to personal freedom.
The second step to personal freedom is in the word matzah, which is one of the most recognizable Jewish items. What’s more Jewish than matzah? It’s up there with the shofar, the menorah, and of course matzah ball soup. We all know why we eat matzah on Passover. A long time ago when the Jews were leaving Egypt, there wasn’t enough time to bake bread. The Jews were so busy rushing, they threw the dough on their backs and later baked it into crackers.
What? Could that be? G-d shows up in Egypt and brings 10 of the coolest plagues ever: blood, frogs, lice, locusts, darkness. By the time the Jews are ready to leave, Egypt is upside down. Jewish motivational speaker Charlie Harary is fond of asking, “Couldn’t G-d have arranged for us to have a late check-out?” Why did we have to run out like fugitives? Why couldn’t we leave like normal people? And yet, this technical difficulty of not having enough time to bake bread became the symbol of the Exodus, the symbol of our freedom and Independence?
My friends, Judaism is not a commemorative religion. We don’t do things just because we did them a long time ago. Judaism is dynamic—it’s relevant. We use history as a window into something much deeper to better our lives today.
Mitzrayim, Egypt, constraints, is both a historical place and an everyday reality.
We all have constraints, aspects of our lives that are lacking—areas in which we feel unable to grow and change for the better, relationships that are strained, talents unfulfilled, frustrations, disappointments and failures we see in ourselves and others. We’re looking to break free of these constraints.
Sometimes, the opportunities we’re looking for that can change our lives, present themselves right before our eyes. It’s a moment that requires us to step up and grab it. But there’s a catch: growth moments are almost always wrapped in challenge, in difficulty and in discomfort.
And when these moments present themselves, we get stuck. We know we should do it, but we can’t bring ourselves to do it. We know we should make the call. We know we should be healthier. We know we should learn more. We know we should be more patient and kind and generous and tolerant—but it’s hard and we’re tired.
What’s the difference between bread and matzah? Time. Matzah must be made in a hurry—less than 18 minutes—so that the dough doesn’t rise. When we get a moment of inspiration, when we want to create a change in our lives, we must seize the moment. Don’t procrastinate, don’t hesitate. Like baking matzah, do it right away.
Too often we come up with this brilliant response. “Later! I’ll do it later. No, I want to and I’m going to, but at the end of the day, it’s almost the weekend. I should do it after the holidays, or when the kids are out of the house. You know what? When my business improves. No, after I retire.” Later is a great way to avoid what we know we need to do. But later is the first step to never!
Matzah doesn’t just commemorate how we left Egypt 3,000 years ago. It’s the symbol of how we can get out of Egypt every day of our lives. G-d deliberately rushed us out of Egypt to teach us that freedom doesn’t wait till it’s convenient. We need to run to opportunities. We shouldn’t walk, and we definitely shouldn’t stroll. Chametz is later and matzah is now. It’s the difference between a life of meaning or a life of mediocrity. Chametz or matzah? This is why matzah is the second symbol of personal freedom.
Lastly, there’s the mara, the bitter herbs we eat to remember the bitter years of slavery in Egypt. But why dwell on the pain of the past? We’re free now. You know why? Because people sometimes think, “If only I didn’t have such challenges and hardships in my life, I would be a much happier person.”
The truth is, it’s our challenges that bring out the greatness within us. We eat the mara to remember to step into those challenges, to overcome the pain. So, eat the mara. Dare to do something new. Step out of your comfort zone.
My friends, Passover is your chance to grow and break free. Just follow the three steps of the Haggadah:
No.1: Peh Sach: positive speech, believe in yourself and verbalize it.
No. 2: Matzah: don’t procrastinate, seize the moment.
No. 3: Maror: step into life’s challenges and choose to grow.
Chag kasher v’sameyach. Have a happy and joyous Passover. May this Pesach be a time of growth for all of us.
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and author of “Dancing With God: How to Connect With God Every Time You Pray.”