Taking Matzoh in Hand

By Rabbi Joshua Shmidman

The Kabbalists divide reality into three categories: olam, shanah and nefesh — world, time and soul.  The holiday of Pesach — the holiday of freedom — can be seen as expressing freedom in all these areas.  It celebrates freedom from oppression by the nations of the world and affirms our belief in the ultimate redemption of the people of Israel from servitude to earthly powers.  This aspect of the liberation of the Jewish people from under the yoke of servitude and tyranny, beginning with the slavery in Egypt, is grandly and minutely described in the Torah.  There are two other essential types of freedom which Pesach celebrates; namely, freedom from the oppression of one’s soul, that is, from the limitations and constraints of one’s own personality, and secondly, freedom from the structures of time and the predictable flow of natural events.  Pesach summons us to transcend ourselves and to transcend time.

At the heart of the observances of Pesach are the prohibition against chametz (leavened bread) and the obligation to eat matzoh (unleavened bread).  Our sages have understood chametz to be symbolic of a basic failing of the human personality.  It represents the weakness in the human psyche when it is unable to control itself.  In the Talmud (Brachot 17a), it is reported Rabbi Alexandri used to conclude his prayers with this supplication: “It is known and clear to you, Oh God, that it is our will to do Your will, but what prevents us?  It is the leavening in the dough which prevents us.”  In other words, due to the weakness in our personalities, our base egotistical needs often overwhelm our divinely created souls which basically yearn to serve God and His will.  Chametz is a physical symbol of human arrogance in its bloating, expanding and puffing up of its self, and assigning the highest priority to serving our self-interest at the expense of serving God and being concerned for others.  It requires a determined effort on the part of man to overcome this tendency, to restrain oneself, so as to allow the truer nature of the soul to dominate.  Chametz is the symbol of ga’avah (self-inflating conceit) raging out of control, whereas matzoh, on the contrary, is the symbol of anivut, true humility before God and our fellow-men.  Pesach challenges us to free ourselves from the drive to self-importance, and to liberate ourselves from the endless cycle of self-indulgence.  While it initially seems that one who is bloated and self-magnifying will continue to grow larger and larger, the truth is just the opposite.  The Talmud (Sotah 5a) states:  “Every man in whom is haughtiness of spirit will in the end be reduced, as it was written, (Job 24:24) ‘They are exalted for a little while…and they are gone.'”  The moral judgement here is that haughtiness and arrogance eventually pass into non-existence — bitul.  We are, therefore, bidden to take the initiative and perform the act of bitul chametz, the nullification of chametz or biur chametz, the destruction of chametz, in order to assert that we are not victims of the natural “fermentation” of arrogance within ourselves; we proclaim the valuelessness of self-serving arrogance before it crops up in our soul and threatens to overwhelm us.

Matzoh is, therefore, the true bread of freedom, not only in that it is devoid of leavening, and thus symbolizes humility, but it goes even further — it is the bread of sharing.  The mitzvah in the Torah is that matzoh be eaten together with the paschal lamb and the bitter herbs.  The eating of the paschal lamb was meant to be a communal feast.  It was not to be eaten alone but with the family and with others who joined in to eat it together.  The arrogant and the self-centered individual is concerned with feeding and  satisfying himself; he resents others enjoying and partaking along with him of what he has.  The first act of freedom that the Jewish people had to experience in their delivery from slavery was to share their food, their bitter memories, and their hopes.  Egypt is referred to in Tanach as Eretz Rahav, the land of arrogance.  The supreme expression of that insolence is Pharaoh’s declaration to Moshe, “Who is God that I should listen to Him?”  In a remarkably ironic way, slaves, for all their lack of power, share the basic characteristic of self-centeredness with their overlords.  A slave, by definition, is someone who must always be self-concerned.  His primary need is survival.  He does not have the serenity, peace of mind, or the means to concern himself with the needs of his neighbor.  For the slave, therefore, the ultimate mark of freedom is his ability to bear responsibility for the life and welfare of others, and to share with others all that he has.  This ability to be concerned for the life of someone else is the true mark of humility.  What the slave really gains from freedom, therefore, is humility — a humility in its deepest sense which consists not in self-denigration, but in the ability to step out of one’s own self-regard and enter into the vital concerns of others.  These values were experienced by the liberated slaves when they ate and joined with others in the mitzvah of matzoh, maror and (Korban) Pesach.

At the Seder, on the night of Pesach, every Jew is required to feel that he is a king, and all the rituals of the Seder reflect that.  The reclining, the dipping, the four cups of wine, the festive table, are all meant to be symbols of royalty.  What distinguishes a king from a slave is precisely that while a slave is always dependent on others and thus always involved with his own status, a king, ideally, bears responsibility for everyone else.

It is altogether appropriate, therefore, that the Seder begins with the declaration “Kol Dichfin“; “let all those who are hungry come and eat and join with us.”  Furthermore, even before Passover arrives, a Jew has the obligation of ma’ot chittim, providing for the Passover requirements of the needy.  This is not merely in keeping with the general law of tzedakah, charity, but is a special law relating to Pesach, and indeed precedes the laws of Pesach in the Shulchan Aruch, for it embodies the very essence of Pesach.

The ultimate expression, then, of a kingly personality consists in humbling oneself so as to feel the needs of others, to identify with their difficulties, and to assume the responsibility to help them resolve their problems and to achieve their maximum potentialities.  Thus, we find the remarkable statement of Rabbi Yochanan (Talmud, Megillah 31a): Wherever you find the Lord’s exaltedness, there you find His humility…It is written in the Prophets, “Thus says the high and lofty One, who dwells in Eternity and whose Name is holy, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place,’ and immediately afterwards it says, ‘but I am with he who is downtrodden and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the downtrodden.'”

This is an amazing statement, for how can one attribute humility to God Himself?  If we interpret humility as it is usually taken — as feeling lowly before another — then surely it is absurd to imply this designation to God.  Rather, what humility really means is the ability to identify with another’s problems and concerns, to share in his difficulties and to strive to resolve them and to “revive” the heart of the downtrodden.  Thus, the highest characteristic of God’s grandeur is His ability to join with His creatures in their plight, and to be with them; helping, caring and uplifting them.  Similarly, a Jew who is raised on Passover to the status of a free and sovereign individual, demonstrates the meaning of this acquired stature by assuming a true sense of humility, expressing itself as a commitment to the service of God by overcoming one’s self-centered and self-serving predilections.  This leads to a profound sense of responsibility towards others and the imperative to care for and share in their lives.  This means, to attend not only to their material and emotional needs, but their spiritual and intellectual struggles as well.  The Seder is the paradigm not only of feeding the hungry but of listening to and appreciating the questions and challenges in the varied minds of others, whichever one of the “four sons” they happen to be.  To seriously try to understand the wicked and the fools and the simpletons and to dialogue with them honestly and wholeheartedly is the essence of humility.

Pesach summons us to transcend ourselves and to transcend time.

Transcending Time

Another basic aspect of the experience of freedom of the holiday of Passover is freedom from the constraints of immutable time.  Every event which occurs in the natural world takes place in the framework of time.  No physical or human event can escape the mathematically precise and immutable structure of time.  We normally think of time as being irreversible, totally predictable, and inescapable.  The events of Pesach break into the world and announce that the scheme of things is not absolute, final and unchangeable.  Pesach demonstrates that the constraints of time can be broken.  The tyranny of Egypt, Mitzrayim, can be overcome.  The word Mitzrayim is related to the Hebrew word metzarim, which means limitation and constraint; the fact of the liberation from Mitzrayim implies that the ultimate determinant of nature, namely immutable time, and the predictability of events can be overcome!  What does the belief in the revival of the dead imply if not an affirmation that time is reversible?  What is the import of the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance, which declares that the misdeeds of the past can be reversed and even be converted into mitzvot, if not that the past can be recovered and reshaped?

As a matter of fact, the Maharal of Prague is of the opinion that the idea that ein mukdam u’meuchar baTorah, that events in the Torah are not necessarily given in chronological order, is in itself a manifestation of the concept that we are not absolutely bound by immutable principles of time and causality.  The Torah principle is that time does not hold absolute sway, and that the past can be recalled and reversed, which is precisely the mechanism underlying the process of teshuvah.

The first mitzvah which the Jewish people were given at the time of their liberation from Egypt was the commandment concerning the determination of time itself.  This was the mitzvah of kiddush hachodesh.  Unlike other peoples, who measure time by the relation of the earth to the sun, we are required to fix the periods of time by the cycles of the moon.  The image of the sun never changes — “there is nothing new under the sun” — it is always a round ball in the sky.  The moon, however, is never the same on successive days.  It is constantly changing its shape and form.  Furthermore, the basic commandment concerning establishing the calendar by the cycles of the moon is that these cycles not be calculated mathematically and determined mechanically but that it be decided by free human decision.  Individuals go out and view the new moon, report their sightings to the Beit Din who are halachically given broad leeway to decide whether or not to declare a new month.

The Torah states, “This month shall be unto you,” that is, it is to large extent in our hands.  What this means, therefore, is that fundamentally the People of Israel are not in the hands of time, rather, time is in our hands; and this is the first, and hence defining principle of Jewish life.  We are absolutely bound by time, yet we transcend time.  More broadly stated, while we certainly live in the world of time, yet on another level we live in the realm of eternity.

Jewish history is the expression of the intersection of time by eternity.  The processes which generally determine the history of nations — economic, military, and social forces which all function within the fixed boundaries of time and natural causality — do not hold the final word in the life of Israel.  Jewish history, is ultimately the story of Netzach Yisrael (Eternal Israel), and is brought about by a divine presence — seen and unseen — which lifts the Jewish people out of the grip of the normal determinants of history.  Jewish history, therefore, is supernatural history; from the very beginning, the Exodus from Egypt is marked by miracles such as the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and by the defeat of Pharaoh, ruler of the most powerful empire on earth.  These things are brought about by God’s intervention, lifting Israel out of the clutches of time and the powers which operate in time.  This is the ultimate freedom.  Consequently, the Jewish people are given the responsibility and the privilege of being the carriers of God’s moral and spiritual law — the Torah — which has the power to override the natural law.  The miraculous survival of the Jewish people throughout thousands of years of oppression, and their triumphant return to Eretz Yisrael in our time, are testimony to this power of Netzach Yisrael.

The Sefat Emet points out that in order to bring about the giving of the Ten Commandments, the ten utterances by which the natural universe was created were miraculously overturned by the ten plagues. The plagues were the expression of God’s revelation of His supernatural governance of the universe.  The eternal moral law of the Torah, which depends upon the free choice of Israel for its realization, overrides natural law.

This metaphysical drama is wonderfully expressed in the laws of chametz and matzoh.  The fact is that there is no difference between the physical ingredients of chametz and matzoh — they both consist of a mixture of flour and water.  The only difference between them is time.  When flour mixed with water is allowed to stand untouched by human hands — so that the mixture is subject to only the passage of time — it begins to rise and it becomes chametz.

Matzoh, on the other hand, is jolted out of that measured natural process of time and is taken in hand, shaped and formed and baked in haste.  The making of matzoh, therefore, represents the idea of lifting natural events out of the framework of time.  Furthermore, it represents the primacy of human responsibility for life, of taking charge, of taking in hand the world in which we live and imposing our freely-chosen decision making upon it.  This is what a free person does, he doesn’t let things just happen by themselves.  Rather, he makes them happen.

The very idea of “haste,” which governs so many of the events of Pesach, signifies this approach.  Rabbi Isaac Hutner, z”l (Pachad Yitzchak, Passover) points out that the centrality of haste (zerizut) in the Torah descriptions of the life of Abraham, such as “he rose up early in the morning,” are meant to indicate not just the zeal and alacrity of Abraham, but something more profound; namely, that this zerizut represents a desire to leap out of time itself.  Similarly, the story of Passover is characterized by haste: Pharaoh’s haste in sending the Israelites free from bondage; the command to the Israelites to eat the paschal lamb in haste, with their staffs in hand; and the Israelites’ dough hastily baked into matzoh rather than given the time to ferment.  These are all expressions of a history which is lifted out of time and enters into eternity.

When we eat matzoh on Pesach, therefore, we indicate our humility before God and man, and assert unequivocally our acceptance of responsibility for others and our faith in the eternity of Israel.  Through this mitzvah, it is our privilege and opportunity to affirm our role in that sacred history.

Rabbi Shmidman teaches Talmudic law and is on the faculty of law at McGill University.  He is associate editor of the journal, Or Hamizrach.

This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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