A Yeshiva friend of mine recently shared this story with me:
A wealthy man from a non-Chabad Chassidic community was an admirer of the Rebbe’s work. Once he had opportunity to see the Rebbe, sometime close to Passover, and offered a large amount of money to support “a big project”. The Rebbe told him that this time of year Chabadniks in Israel go around to neighbors, co-workers, people on the street, fellow Israelis of all backgrounds and levels of religious observance and share with them Shmurah Matzah for the Pesach Seder. This can be quite a costly endeavor on a large scale.
The man wasn’t thrilled. He was thinking more of a new big building or center. Not Matzahs that are here today and eaten tomorrow. He wanted to establish something, make an impression, an impact. This multitude of personal Matzah interactions was not his vision of a big project. But the Rebbe insisted, saying: “If you are asking me what I think is a big project, I consider this to be a big project.”
I think this short conversation is very telling about the Rebbe for several reasons:
1) Yes, buildings are important. They are expensive, they are needed, they can be a great facility for good. But they are only a shell. To the Rebbe: personal interactions, one Jew to another, heart to heart, is a big project. True, you might not be able to put your name on it in big bold lettering, but it is about relationships and connections. Even those Chabad Houses with beautiful buildings are more about the people interactions than the building itself.
2) The Rebbe believed in the infinite value of each and every Mitzvah. Even fleeting Mitzvot, even Mitzvot done in isolation, disconnected from anything else. From a Chassidic perspective, Mitzvot mean spiritual connection, not just commandment. One-time Mitzvot have great value in the Rebbe’s view, whether they lead to further observance or not.
3) To paraphrase, A Mitzvah in hand is better than two in the bush. True, the Rebbe was a visionary, and on many things was ahead of the curve and beyond his time. But the Rebbe was also pragmatic, with tremendous emphasis on the here and now, on seizing the moment. If this conversation took place just before Passover, this Matzah project was priority, it was the opportunity at hand, the Rebbe was eager to make the most of it, rather than defer to some later concept or development.
4) And the Rebbe was really into handmade Shmurah Matzah.
What’s so special about Shmurah Matzah?
The boxed machine-made Matzah you see in the stores are Kosher for Passover, no question about that. But there’s preference that Shmurah Matzot be eaten, especially for the Seder Nights. Shmurah literally means “watched” and it is a Halachic term that means the flour used in these Matzot was carefully supervised from the time of harvest all throughout the milling process to ensure it remained dry without any contact with water until the time it was mixed with water and baked into Matzot. Some select boxes of machine-made Matzot use Shmurah (watched) flour, but all the round, handbaked Matzot are made with Shmurah flour.
Chassidic thought emphasizes that Matzah is “Bread of Faith”. The Seder Night is a spiritual opportunity to digest faith, we are literally chewing and absorbing faith. This makes Matzah more than just one-night’s Mitzvah, it has lasting spiritual effect all year. If that’s the case, this faith must be “watched”, guarded and protected for its purity and holiness.
Interestingly, in the Rebbe’s last published Maamar (Chassidic discourse) titled “V’Ata Tetzaveh” he explains that the role of a Rebbe and of Jewish leaders throughout history going back to Moses, is to nurture and nourish their internal built-in faith, to fortify and develop their core connection. It’s a deep concept and a whole different conversation about identity and expression, personalization and connection, but in terms of relating it back to Matzah, the absorbable and digestible “bread of faith”, it seems fitting that a deeply personal and highly intentional form of it would be a Rebbe’s mission.
One more thing about Shmurah and especially hand-baked Shmurah: This Matzah was harvested, milled and baked for the sake of the Mitzvah. It was done with intent, by people, it was prepared with meaning. Regular Matzah is made by machine, with Kosher ordinary flour that came from some random factory. Handmade Shmurah is different. Every step of this process was done with focus and intent, for the sake of the Mitzvah, for the sake of the Seder night, with much personal investment and meaning leading up to the Matzah on your table at the Seder.
I’m not one to advertise or promote expensive cars, but this promo for Shmurah-Matzah drives home some of this point...
Perhaps this is behind the Rebbe’s push for Shmurah Matzah…