The Hebrew's have been living in Egypt for 210 years. For close to one hundred years they were brutally oppressed. The male adults were subjected to slave labor, while their children were drowned and slaughtered. At last, after ten plagues that devastated the Egyptian Empire, the night of liberation has arrived. Moses, in the name of G-d, instructs the Jewish people on their behavior during that memorable night, when they will discover liberty.
Surprisingly, the nature of that night's cuisine occupies a significant space in the divine imagination:
"G-d said to Moses and Aaron… They [the community of Israel] shall eat the flesh [of the Passover offering] on that night, roasted on the fire, with matzos and bitter herbs. Do not eat of it roasted in a pot [in its own juices with no other liquid added], or cooked [in a pot with other liquid], or boiled in water; only roasted on the fire (1)."
Indeed, this became the annual Passover routine. When the Holy Temple (Beis HaMikdash) stood in Jerusalem, every Jewish household (or group of smaller households) would bring a lamb or kid to the Temple on the fourteenth day of Hebrew month of Nissan, the day preceding the festival of Passover. The lamb would be offered in the Temple courtyard, parts of which would be burned atop the altar. It would then be roasted on a spit over a fire. That night - - the first night of Passover -- the meat would be eaten with matzah and marror (bitter herbs), constituting the three staples of the seder. Nowadays, in the absence of a Temple, our seder tables are left only with the matzah and marror, without the Passover offering (2).
In this commandment, we encounter, in a rather moving way, the Jewish version of religion. In Judaism, the creator of heaven and earth is not concerned only with cosmic and existential truths, but also with people's kitchen patterns. The way you prepare dinner -- in a microwave, on the stove, on a grill or directly on the bon-fire -- is deeply significant in G-d's eyes. In the Jewish faith, G-d is intimately involved with every dimension of the human experience (3).
Yet it seems uniquely strange that G-d would choose the roast and reject the saute for the Passover offering. Does G-d really care if you cook, boil or saute the Passover offering meat? What is the message behind this peculiar mitzvah (4)? What sets the Passover offering apart from all other offerings in the Temple in that it is the only one that must be roasted over a fire, and you were not even permitted to pot roast it in its own juices without any other liquids (5)?
Don't get me wrong. I have no qualms against a decent barbecue, especially one accompanied by crispy buns (the modern version of matzah) and spicy sauce (the modern version of maror). Yet I'd still not turn the braai -- as our South African friends fondly define the barbecue -- into a moral and divine commandment!
Psychological Cooking and Roasting
Yet it is precisely here where we subtly encounter the Jewish definition of freedom.
The difference between cooking and roasting is, that while in cooking (or boiling or sauteing) the food is prepared via a combination of both fire (or heat) and water (or other liquids), roasting only employs fire as the means to heat the food.
In roasting itself -- where you don't involve any other external liquids -- there are two categories: pot-roasting and fire roasting. Pot-roasting still involves a partition between the food and the fire, while in fire-roasting, the food comes in direct contact with the fire.
In Jewish mysticism, fire represents upward striving, yearning, thirst, passion, tension and restlessness. Water, on the other hand, symbolizes satiation, containment, tranquility, fulfillment, calmness and resolution. Fire decomposes, breaks and divides; you place an object in fire and it's challenged to its core, literally. Water connects, unites and integrates. The Kabbalists talk of a "water-like love," embodied by a brother and sister, vs. a "fire-like love," personified by a husband and wife. The former is placid and stable; the latter is often subjected to tension, vicissitude and intense passion (6).
On the Essence of Freedom
What type of life ought one to strive for? Should we yearn for a journey of ceaseless ambition and fervor, or for an existence of tranquility and gratification?
One would imagine that freedom is achieving that state in which your psyche is cleansed from all the tension, yearning and longing that only serves to turn life into a battlefield of ideas and emotions. "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I will show you a happy man."
Comes the Torah and tells us that on the very night when Israel embraced the blessing of freedom, it simultaneously learnt that the Passover freedom offering could not be prepared with even one drop of water, only through direct contact with fire. Why?
Freedom is the ability to be truly and fully human. And to be human is to be restless. To be human is to be moved by the call of the infinite, by endless mystery, by boundless vision. Created in the image of the divine, the infinite essence of reality, man's horizons are forever extending. The infamous lack of human satiation is not reflective of man's lowly nature; on the contrary, it is reflective of man's greatness. A human being always senses that there is much more to life, to reality, to truth, and he\she yearns for it.
To live a free life, free to express your full humaneness and G-dliness, means never to be complacent and satisfied with your personal growth and your moral achievements; not to allow even a drop of water to slake your thirst and silence your quest; not even to allow a "pot" to contain and limit your inner fervor and passion to touch truth.
A student, once visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Brooklyn office, saw the Rebbe erase a few words that he had written earlier.
"Why do you erase words that you wrote?" the student asked the Rebbe. "I am sure that if a mind as great as yours originally conceived these words, they contain gems of truth; why destroy them?"
"When I wrote these words," the Rebeb replied, "they might have reflected the truth of that moment. But as time moves on, truth of the past must be discarded for the sake of a deeper light that has emerged."
(This essay is based on an entry in a private and undated journal of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (7))
1) Exodus 12:8-9. -- This translation follows Rashbam. Cf. Rashi and Ibn Ezra for other translations to the Hebrew word Nah.
2) Today, the meat of the Passover offering is represented at the seder by the afikoman, a piece of matzah eaten at the end of the meal.
3) See Tanya chapter 41.
4) Three answers to this question are presented in Sefer Hachenuch Mitzvah #7 and Daas Zekanim Mebaalei Hatesfos to Exodus ibid. The answer presented in the essay is culled from the literature of Jewish mysticism and is based on the axiom that every mitzvah and law in the Torah contains a spiritual and psychological message (see Rambam end of Hilchos Temurah).
5) Rashbam ibid; Rashi and Tosafos to Talmud, Pesachim 41a.
6) See Tanya chapters 3 and 44.
7) Published in Reshimos #37.