On Passover, Jews all over the world eat a special flatbread called matzah. The only difference between it and regular bread is that matzah is baked before it has a chance to puff up and rise. But bread isn't the only thing that can get puffy. People also sometimes puff themselves up by bragging and acting conceited. One of the big lessons of Passover is to un-puff ourselves and learn to be down to earth like the humble, holy matzah.
In our story a kid learns the lesson of the matzah.
One of the highlights of Passover vacation was the annual spring science fair. Kids came together in a big auditorium from schools over the state to display their award-winning projects and compete for the grand prize of a free trip to Israel. Though he hadn't won the grand prize, Alex Frankel was feeling pretty proud of himself, as one of judges had just told him he had won an honorable mention -- and 50 dollars cash for his project on plant photosynthesis.
As Alex waited for his prize, he decided to go take a look at some of the other displays. He noticed that the kid in the booth next to him had done a project about how bread and cake rises and how unleavened matzah stayed matzah. "Hey, that's kind of neat," he said to the boy whose nametag had 'Josh' written on it. "Looks like you really worked hard, Josh. Too bad not everyone could win a prize like I did, isn't it?"
Josh smiled uncomfortably and nodded. Alex hoped he hadn't hurt the kid's feelings, but still he had earned the right to brag a bit, hadn't he? Head held high, Alex looked down from the top of his nose at the kid's project, and shook his head. "Don't mind me saying so Josh, but if you want to win a prize next year -- like I did -- you have to make things look a little more, um… professional."
Alex continued to give Josh a whole list of tips and pointers, while Josh listened carefully, nodding his head, and saying "good idea" every one in a while.
All of the sudden there was a big commotion. Alex turned around to see the whole panel of judges with big smiles on their faces, together with what looked like news reporters with big cameras wearing headphones, rushing his way.
They must be coming to give me my prize, he thought.
"Great talking to you Josh, better luck next time," Alex said hurriedly, as he tucked in his shirt and walked toward the delegation to accept his prize.
As the reporter got closer, Alex flashed his best prizewinner's smile and held out his hand. But instead of taking it, the man pushed him aside. "Sorry kid, no time for autographs. I've got a job to do." Alex didn't get it. He turned on his heels and followed them, but didn't have to go far because the entire delegation stopped at the booth next to his, right in front of Josh! Flashbulbs started popping, and the head judge shook Josh's hand with a big smile and ceremoniously presented him with a free round-trip ticket to Israel.
Alex couldn't believe it. Josh had won the Grand Prize! And even more unbelievable was the whole time he had been bragging about his own little prize, Josh knew he was the grand prizewinner and still just humbly stood there without saying a thing!
After the excitement died down and everyone was packing up, Alex went back over to Josh and shook his hand. "I guess you think I'm pretty foolish, huh, bragging like I did, when you were the real winner?"
Josh just smiled sincerely and said, "Everyone here is a winner, prize or no prize," and offered Alex to take home one of the matzah snacks he had brought along.
Alex gratefully accepted and hoped that by eating the matzah this Passover he'd learn to be a bit more like it.
Q. How did Alex feel at first when he was talking to Josh?
A. He felt proud that he had won a prize and wanted to brag about it to Josh who hadn't.
Q. How did Alex feel in the end?
A. He was amazed that Josh had really won a much bigger prize than he did, but didn't brag at all. He felt silly more bragging and decide to be more humble for now on.
Q. What do you think makes the matzah we eat on Passover a symbol for being humble?
A. The unleavened matzah is flat and low. It doesn't puff up with air the way regular bread does when it rises. Therefore, it symbolizes humility and teaches us not to let ourselves get puffed up with conceited pride either. But more than this, our sages and mystics teach that eating properly made matzah on Passover can actually give us a big spiritual boost in our attempts to become more humble and better people.
Q. Is there ever a time we should 'puff ourselves up'?
A.There can be times that we have to stand up for our own legitimate rights or those of others. Also, we should like ourselves and not put ourselves down. But puffing up for the sake of bragging and making others feel bad has no place in a spiritual life.
Ages ten and up
Q. Passover is the festival of the freedom of the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt. Who do you think is more free, someone who brags about his accomplishments to others, or someone who humbly keeps them to himself? Why?
A. Freedom, in a spiritual sense, means not being slavishly dependent on the approval of others to feel good about ourselves, but rather to get our sense of self-esteem from our closeness to God and doing what is right. When we brag, we are in effect saying 'approve of me, so I can feel good about myself.' A person who is truly free will feel good about himself even without the approval.
Q. Our sages teach that unbaked matzah dough will not begin to rise as long as it's being worked and kneaded, but once it sits idle it begins to puff up and rise. What analogy do you think we can learn from here about human nature?
A. As long as a person keeps busy doing worthwhile activities he is going to feel good about himself and have no need to put anyone else down, but once he 'sits idle' he is going to start feeling unproductive and bad about himself until the only way he can build himself up is by putting others down. A big secret of being happy is to keep busy doing things that count!