Iyar: From Matza to Chametz

Nov 17, 2014

Sefirat Haomer: From Matza to Chametz!

Around Pesach time one usually hears a number of anti-chametz drashas. These are based on an image already found in Chazal; the yeitzer hara, the evil inclination, is likened to chametz, “the leaven in the dough.” It is usually pointed out that chametz causes a puffing up of the dough compared to the arrogance (subtle as it may be) lurking behind all sin. It is also pointed out that the difference behind matza and chametz can be a hairbreadth; once the dough passes that 18-minute limit it is unfit for Pesach use. This is hinted at in the Hebrew lettering of the two words. The letters “mem” and “tzadi” are common to both chametz and matza, but whereas matza has a “hei”, chametz has a “chet.” Once again, the difference between good and evil might be microscopic.

The drashos are right on the mark during Pesach, when chametz is prohibited, and we search for the meaning behind the mitzvah. However, the moment Pesach is over we go back to eating chametz – that is not permissible, but a mitzva. If chametz was only permitted, but not a mitzvah, we could just place it in the category of permissible yet problematic aspects of life, and see it as a concession to weak human nature (with the option for the pious to be stringent and eat the more spiritual matza all year). However, in a number of contexts, there is actually a mitzvah to eat chametz. The “Shtei Halechem”, the two loaves offered as a sacrifice on Shavuot in the Temple in Jerusalem are made from chametz. We must, then, search for a pro-chametz drasha, for the positive religious significance of chametz. Hagaon Rav Shlomo Fisher shlita of Jerusalem once gave over the following (It is here translated, condensed, and restated – he did not go over this, and any mistakes or inconsistencies are solely our and not his responsibility.):

Getting Presents and Saying Thank You
When someone gives a present, the proper response is to say thank you. To right away give the giver a present in return would be tactless. It would almost negate the present, transforming it into some kind of barter. One must, when receiving a present, realize that he is a receiver and simply appreciate what others do for him. [This requires special work for those used to viewing themselves as the givers/providers.]

There is a second stage response, though, when receiving a present or a favor — to later on return the favor. When we receive a present we file the event away and wait for the proper opportunity to give a present in return. So when the neighbor helps us fix our lawnmower we just say thank you, but two weeks later we offer to baby-sit when he and his wife have a wedding to go to.

Matza and Chametz
Matza symbolizes self-negation before G-d. It is flat, showing that we are nothing without Him. Chametz, on the other hand, symbolizes our independent contribution, where G-d wanted us to use our free will to contribute to His world and bring His Presence into it. Chametz can of course get out of hand and turn into arrogance if a person loses track of where his independence came from and what he should do with it. But independence in itself is a necessary and desirable part of our religious life.

Pesach and Shavuot
On Pesach G-d reveals Himself to us with great mercy and redeems us from Egypt. Our reaction: matza. We negate ourselves to Him and just say thank you. We are totally in the receiving mode. The only tactful response to this great Chesed is to say thank you and realize how powerless we are without Him. However, we eventually wait for the chance to, so to speak, give something back to G-d. That chance comes on Shavuot, when we offer the chametz sacrifice of the two breads, the “shtei halechem.” This is our personal contribution to G-d’s world, the not overly puffed up chametz. We realize that anything we have to offer is thanks to Him, for Him, and according to His Torah (that he gave us on Shavuot). But it is our way of showing “hakarat hatov,” appreciation.

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