I am fascinated by contronyms—words that are both synonyms and homonyms. By way of example, the phrase “to dust” can mean either to sprinkle with fine particles—think, “a dusting of snow”—or to remove such particles. An “apology” can be both an admission of guilt or a defense of one’s actions. And to “cleave” is either to join closely or to split apart. There’s something fascinating about a word that contains such opposing understandings.
Symbolically, matzah—the central symbol of the forthcoming holiday of Pesach—is also a kind of contronym. In Exodus 12:39, Torah teaches that we eat matzah because, upon leaving Egypt, our ancestors moved so hastily they did not have time for their dough to rise. Yet, in fact, those same ancestors actually consumed matzah before leaving Egypt, on the night of the Passover itself, at the first seder (see Exodus 12:8). In other words, matzah represents both slavery and freedom. We affirm this duality at our own seders, where we describe the matzah as both lachma anya—the bread of affliction—and the symbol of our liberation.
This paradox serves as a reminder that life is complicated. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
As we approach Passover, known by our tradition as z’man cheyruteynu, the season of our liberation, we feel this challenge intensely. News services, social media, and often our own life experiences constantly remind us that the world is filled with brokenness, injustice, brutality and pain. Yet spring calls us to hope, nonetheless—which compels us to do our small but significant part to bring healing. May we soon experience our bread of affliction as a feast of freedom.
Chag samayach v’kasher—a joyous and kosher celebration.
What experiences of affliction and hope will you bring to this year’s seder?