Pesach Matza: Bread of Poverty, Bread of Freedom

Nov 17, 2014
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Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

A common term used in the Haggadah to describe matzah is “lechem oni.” It is usually translated as “the bread of affliction,” or “the bread of poverty.” This explanation is based on the the Ramban’s commentary on Devarim (16:2) (and reflected in most commentaries on the Haggadah) which says that poor people eat this kind of bread, and the Egyptians fed it to the Jewish people as slaves.

The Maharal strongly disagrees with this interpretation, saying we have no source that the Jews ate matzah while enslaved in Egypt. In fact, a verse in the Torah indicates the opposite. “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt, free of charge” (Bamidbar 11:5). Furthermore, it says (Devarim 16:3) “Don’t eat leavened bread with [the Pesach offering]; seven days shall you eat…matzah, the bread of poverty, for in haste you left Egypt.” If the Jews ate matzah as slaves, why is “leaving Egypt in haste” given as a reason for the commandment to eat it!? And if matzah is the bread of POVERTY, why is it associated with emancipation and redemption, which reflects freedom and wealth?

A poor person, who lacks all money and possessions, reflects the basic minimum for human existence. This person has nothing outside of himself, and his identity – that of a poor person -is independent of anything except himself. Matzah is called the bread of poverty because it, too, has nothing besides the basic minimum for its existence, flour and water. Any enhancement, whether it be yeast, sugar, or even “time”, adds something to the dough beyond the bare minimum, and it is not matzah, not bread of poverty.

Slavery means to be controlled by forces outside of yourself and your essence, whether it be by the expectations of others, physical dependencies, or personal insecurities. Redemption means emancipating yourself from that control, becoming independent of any external forces or dependencies. A slave is dependent on and controlled by his master. A wealthy person, too, lacks a dimension of independence, since his identity is the result of, and dependent on, his attachment to his money and possessions. So much of his life is controlled by that wealth, while a poor person, having nothing but himself, stands completely separate and independent from anything outside of himself. He represents the concept of redemption and freedom, even if his life in the material world has limitations.

Matzah doesn’t represent poverty. Rather it represents the process of becoming independent. Independence is acquired by removing any bonds or dependencies on things outside of oneself. This is the process of redemption. Therefore, G-d commanded us to eat matzah on the night of the exodus from Egypt. Just as the poor person has nothing beyond his basic existence, on the night of the departure from Egypt we eat the bread composed of the most basic ingredients, at the time when we are acquiring redemption and freedom. We need to leave the control of anything outside of our essence, and we eat bread that contains nothing but the essence necessary for its being.

We now have a new way of understanding the verses commanding us to eat matzah. “Seven days shall you eat…matzah, the bread of poverty, for in haste you left Egypt”: Eat bread which stands independent of anything besides its essence. Why? Because you left Egypt in haste. Haste implies no time delay. A process delayed over time includes an enhancement to the essence of the process, while true redemption is built on unloading everything but the essence. The Jewish people didn’t leave the bondage of Egypt through a natural, historical process, which takes time. Their redemption was an instantaneous Divine process, with direct emancipation by G-d Himself, Who transcends the limitations of time. Therefore, chametz was prohibited, since it represents a process which requires time, while we are commanded to eat matzah, which comes into being “without time.”

The Maharal concludes with the following summary. A poor person is one who has nothing. This is a handicap in our material world, which operates with a system of acquisition and relationships. However, simplicity and independence is a virtue in a system which transcends the material. On the night of Pesach, the Jewish people needed redemption. However, it wasn’t a redemption that could evolve from within the material system, but rather from a higher, transcendent source. Therefore, they were commanded to eat matzah, which is a bread of simplicity, since it has only the basic components, with nothing combined with it.

This concept of simplicity is illustrated by the High Priest who serves all year with clothes of gold, and on Yom Kippur enters the Holy of Holies in pure white clothes. He is acquiring the highest level attainable, one of simplicity, lacking connection to anything beyond the essence, which is represented by white, the purest and simplest color.

This is the meaning of the verse “Seven days shall you eat…matzah, the bread of poverty, for in haste you left Egypt.” Their departure in haste, with no process extending over time, indicated that they left in an elevated state, with the activity of redemption transcending time, in a supernatural way. Therefore, it was fitting to eat bread of poverty, which has no combinations, but is bread in its simplest and most independent form.

Of course, a person needs possessions to exist in the material world in which we live, and one who has money can accomplish things not available to a person without money. This is what the Maharal means in the previous paragraph when he describes the limitations of a poor person. But our possessions aren’t our essence, and we can’t let them become “us.” How often do we allow our financial success, our social status, or the opinions of others define who we are? None of these things are our essence.

The matzah on Pesach is to teach us that redemption, true freedom, means to be free from external dependencies that control us. Matzah, as bread of poverty, teaches us to connect with our essence. All year we eat chametz, rather than limiting ourselves to matzah, just as the Kohen Gadol goes into the Holy of Holies only once a year, serving the rest of the time in the main part of the Temple in gold clothes. We operate all year in a material world, one of chametz. But just as the Kohen Gadol’s annual entrance into the Holy of Holies in the purest white represents the essence of his service all year, the week of Pesach, with our diet of matzah, defines the essence of our interaction with the material world for the rest of the year. When we can declare independence from everything except our essence, then all the other resources available to us can be used to enhance that essence, rather than create artificial dependencies and enslavement. This is the difference between slavery and dependence on the one hand, and true freedom and redemption on the other.

May this month of redemption bring us true freedom!

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