The Great Matza Robbery

A Talmud scenario that sounds like a slapstick comedy - until you realize the message.

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement

Judaism Torah Mitzion
Torah Mitzion

It is almost like slapstick comedy, but the Talmud is absolutely serious. It is the night of the Passover seder. Preparations have been under way for weeks. Everyone has arrived, they are all at their seats. The table is decked out with all the symbols of the holiday, matza, bitter herbs, haroset – everything is ready. Kiddush is about to be heard, or perhaps it has already been recited … and suddenly there is a terrible commotion.

The front door is broken down, and three thieves confront the celebrants at knife point. The guests are tied to their chairs and the intruders begin to ransack the house. They are obviously nervous, for when the hapless victims begin whispering among themselves, the thieves immediately search for a way to gag them.

The more resourceful one among them comes upon the matza lying on the table, and  - after moistening it under the faucet – makes a number of jumbo matza-balls and one by one stuffs them into the mouth of the victims who are now unable to make a sound. Soon after the criminals make a speedy get-away.

And the Talmud proclaims: ‘If bandits forced him to eat matza, he has fulfilled his obligation’.

And we are incredulous – How did the rabbis come up with such a scenario? But more to the point, why do they rule that under such circumstances, the commandment has been legally executed? It was performed under extreme duress! There was no thought or intention, certainly no focus on the meaning of the mitzva or the significance of freedom and slavery!  What is our tradition trying to tell us? Don’t we have to focus our attention and understand our actions for them to have any real meaning? Aren't they just empty shells when we do they by rote – or are forced to perform them by parents or teachers (or thieves!)?

Of course the Talmud is speaking in hyperbole here. And of course it is true that our deeds are much more significant when our bodies function in tandem with our minds and hearts. But let this not blind us to the great truth here, one of the foundational messages of the Torah tradition - and also one of the great divides between Judaism and classical Christianity: Deeds always matter. Even divorced of mindfulness, they matter. They affect the world. They make a difference, for good or for bad.
And they matter because we live in a corporeal world, and the condition of this world matters. It matters to us and it matters to G-d whether there is poverty and sickness, or affluence and health. The state and the progress of mankind matters. Deeds done or left undone make a difference in this physical world in which we live, and it is of the very nature of reality that they very often make a difference no matter what intention or consciousness was attached to them.

Had man been only soul or spirit, had he had no body or had the body been inconsequential to who he is, then it might have been the case that only purity of heart would count, only faith, only feeling. What you could have done or what you meant to do or what you lusted to do might have counted for as much as what you actually did. But that is not the case: Man is no less body than soul; he is more than just a heart, more than just a mind. Our physicality is an essential part of what it means to be human.

Salvation is not merely in the next world, not merely in the world of the spirit - it is just as much in the here and now. Our mission is just as much in this physical world as in any other spiritual one. This world is not unredeemable; it may be unredeemed as of yet, but our mission is to work within it to redeem it. Mankind may not be perfect, not by a long shot, but human society is certainly perfectible. And it is perfectible  one deed at a time.

Now you might object: In the sphere of interaction between human beings actions count: Terrorism or violence has a concrete effect not matter what the motivation, and charity aids the needy no matter why it is given.  Adultery left uncommitted, despite the lust in the heart, leaves the women un-violated.

But ritual deeds? Shouldn't we look at things differently, and only value that which is performed with a full heart? The answer is no, not necessarily. All deeds have an effect upon the environment. They change the world we live in. They have ramifications for others. Good deeds may inspire, transgressions may demoralize, lack of deed may leave a void. Who knows the myriad levels of effect that our deeds have?

And they even change those who perform them.  The medieval author of the Book of Mitzva Education (Sefer Ha'chinuch), in dealing with the almost overwhelming number of mitzvot connected to Pesach, records this deep truth in a pithy aphorism: “Achara hape’ulot nimshachot halevavot” – The hearts are pulled along in the wake of the deeds. Our inner world is molded by our outer world. The movement of our limbs may engender movement in our hearts. You are how you act - for good … and for bad.

In preparation for Pesach there is much to do, as well as during the holiday itself. And we will strive to do what has to be done through a fusion of mind and body, with total awareness and full intentionality. But when we fail to reach this lofty goal, let us not become demoralized. G-d may demand our hearts, but our first priority is to give Him the allegiance of our limbs and our bodies. No good deed – however devoid of soul - is meaningless. Even ‘If bandits forced him to eat matza, he has fulfilled his obligation’.