Matza: Food of Faith
by Rabbi Boruch Shlomo E. Cunin
Reprinted from L’Chaim, April 11, 2003
The festival of Passover was quickly approaching. I was in the middle of the Bronx and the train I was riding in broke down. I got out and began to walk. Heading in the general direction of Pelham Parkway, I kept asking people where a certain address was. I remember one helpful soul who told me, “Son, you’ve got a long way to go!”
Earlier that afternoon, a group of students in Brooklyn had finished baking the last of the Passover matza. It was 1958, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a custom of giving hand-baked matza to people as a spiritual gift before Passover. The Rebbe would stand for hours, greeting people and handing them matza. The mystical Jewish work, the Zohar explains that matza is the “bread of faith,” and simply eating it nourishes the soul.
The Rebbe would give matza first to the people who had to travel far, because riding in a car or subway is not permitted on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
I was 16 years old and had to get home to 167th and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, which was pretty far away. When I approached the Rebbe, he handed me matza and asked if I could deliver some to a certain family.
Ideally, I would have taken a taxi from the subway station, asked the driver to wait, delivered the matza, and gotten home in time for our family Seder. But life is seldom ideal; it was too late to take a cab. Eventually, I found the address, which turned out to be a housing project. I knocked on the door and out came a man with no shirt, tattoos and a pot belly.
“What is it?” he snapped. In the Bronx, it’s proper etiquette to snap when greeting someone. “Excuse me, are you Mr. So-and-So?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said.
I noticed the loaf of rye bread sitting on the table, definitely not a traditional Seder food. I said, “The Rebbe sent me.”
“The Rebbe? Oh, please come in,” he said. The tiny kitchen contained only a small table, some chairs and a hot plate. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, delivering matza to a family who wasn’t celebrating Passover. Then I thought, perhaps that’s exactly why I was there.
I asked the man if he would like to have a Seder. He agreed and called for his wife to come in. She entered, visibly pregnant, with two beautiful little girls, maybe five or six years old, trailing behind. Both girls were blind.
We cleared off the table. I put a hat on the man’s head and said, “Okay, we’re having a Seder!”
I tried to remember the blessings in the proper order, but it was difficult without a Hagada.
We ate the matza and used water and paper cups to recall the four cups of wine. I tried to think what the Rebbe would do if he was here. I looked at the little girls and at their mother, about to have another child, and began to tell them some things I had learned from the Rebbe.
I told them that we have to have faith. On this night, G-d liberated our ancestors from slavery, and He liberates us, too. The husband and wife seemed to hang on every word, like they were getting nourishment just by listening.
I told them that on Passover, we journey through our personal Egypt to freedom, and that G-d doesn’t put on our shoulders more than we can carry. Once you know that, and believe it, you’re already liberated. We sang songs with the children and time flew.
At 1:00 a.m., the woman put the girls to bed and it was time for me to leave, but I had to ask the man how he knew the Rebbe. It turned out he was a leather tanner and was acquainted with a rabbi who worked at another section of the meat plant.
Several months ago, the man’s wife had become pregnant. Since there was a strong possibility that this child, too, would be born blind, their doctor recommended an abortion. The man was very depressed and didn’t know what to do. So he asked this rabbi, who suggested that he write a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe wrote back, saying that they should have faith in G-d and have the child.
As I was about to leave, the man said, “You know, my wife and I weren’t sure about this. How are we supposed to have faith? How are we supposed to forget what is and have hope? We didn’t think it was possible. But tonight, hearing about faith and how G-d gives us the strength to overcome our personal Egypt, well, now we understand.”
Their son was born fully sighted. Over time, I lost track of this family, but years later I learned that the daughters had gotten married and that each had several children, all sighted.
To really describe the Rebbe’s love for hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews all over the world would be impossible. The best I could do is to write about a poor family in the Bronx, living in a housing project for the blind. And how the Rebbe had faith hand-delivered to their door.
Rabbi Boruch Shlomo E. Cunin has been the Rebbe’s Head Shliach (emissary) and Director of Chabad Lubavitch on the West Coast since 1966. This article is reprinted from Farbrengen Magazine, a publication of Chabad of California.