The Festival of Pesach is, by far, the Jewish calendar’s most celebrated holiday in. In terms of popularity, it trumps even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the “High Holidays.” The theme of freedom that we celebrate on Pesach resonates so deeply within us that Pesach has become a holiday that we want to celebrate. As Americans, who experience freedom as few other Jews have in the past, we surely have an obligation to thank Hashem and to celebrate the incredible gift of freedom that we have here in this country.
The Pesach holiday is designed to compel us to acknowledge and appreciate the miraculous release of the Jewish people from 210 years of difficult Egyptian slavery to complete freedom. The ten plagues leading up to the moment of their liberation indelibly established the principles of Judaism as set down by Nachmanides, viz, that (1) Hashem created the world, (2) He controls it. and (3) He is intimately involved with its inhabitants. Built on the trust that the Jewish people had acquired in Hashem through this process, about 4 million of them were prepared to follow His messenger, Moshe, into the desert with no conception of how they would survive without food, drink, and cover. They did so with complete confidence in the powerful Miracle Maker Whom they experienced in Egypt, Hashem. They knew well that if He wanted to, He could make food fall from heaven מן) – Mana), bring water from a rock, באר) מרים – Miriam’s well), and protect them with clouds every day ענני הכבוד) – The clouds of glory which enveloped them like a cocoon).
To preserve and reinforce the lessons of the Exodus, from that moment forward it became an obligation upon the people who experienced those miraculous events to annually tell their children about them on the anniversary of their exit. Their children were in turn instructed to tell their children, and they to their children, until the end of time. Indeed, this commandment is fulfilled at Passover Seders in Jewish homes the world over.
So important are the three fundamentals learned from the Exodus that we have an obligation to remember the Exodus twice daily, morning and evening. We fulfill this commandment when we recite the last verse of Shema–
אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹקִים אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיכֶם.
I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of Egypt to be your G-d; I am Hashem your G-d.
Because in Egypt, Hashem pulled back the curtain to allow everyone, Jew and gentile alike, to see His awesome powers, these principles were seen clearly by all and have been referred to ever since as empirical evidence of Hashem’s existence and involvement with the world, and, most importantly, with the Jewish people. This is what we want to remember every morning and evening when we recite the Shema. Hashem is a reality. He created the world, runs it, and He is involved with it globally and with me personally. All of this was witnessed by millions of people and was handed down from father to son ever since. I sat at my father’s Seder table and he sat at his father’s all the way back to the first Seder in the year 2448 (that’s 3,333 years ago!). The chain hasn’t been broken, and every father has told his son that this is what his father told him that happened to his father.
The Jewish religion did not start as a thought in the mind of a single person who told it to others convincing them of the concept and slowly gaining a following of people who believed his story. It started with a multitude of people (minimum 4 million) who all claimed that the events they were talking about happened to them themselves. They told their children, “We walked through the sea on dry land with the water standing up as pillars on our right and left.” “We ate the manna for 40 years straight in the desert.” If these events did not occur to them how could they lie to their children encouraging them to join a false religion? Their children were actually there with them and would immediately call their bluff and refuse to foist the lie on their children. But we are here to testify that the story has continued from generation to generation in Jewish families in every country in the world. Even many families with little or no connection to traditional Judaism have some type of gathering on Pesach celebrating freedom. They do it because their parents did it when they were children, and they want to keep the beautiful tradition alive for their children.
The Haggadah, the Seder’s centerpiece, constitutes the script for the story of the exodus. It contains not only the essence of how the Jewish people suffered in Egypt and went from slavery to freedom, but is written to be a springboard for broader and deeper discussion.
To help us experience the contrast between slavery and freedom, we do contradictory things at the seder. We eat Matzoh, the bread of affliction, and maror, bitter herbs, to remember the bitter slavery; yet, at the same time, we dip twice like aristocrats and lean like royalty when we eat. This paradox is actually the topic of the “Ma Nishtana”recited by the kids at the Seder. In essence they are pointing to the contradiction in our actions. How come we are acting like slaves and free people at the same time? The answer comes in the next paragraph.
עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה
We were slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt and Hashem our G-d took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
This also explains why matzah is the only bread we eat on Pesach. The Egyptians, in their efforts to make their slaves miserable, fed them matzah, unleavened bread. It tasted awful, was hard to digest, and stayed in their systems for a long time. The same unleavened bread is also the symbol of our swift exodus from Egypt, as we say in the Haggadah:
מַצָּה זו שֶׁאָנוּ אוֹכְלִים עַל שׁוּם מָה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁלֹּא הִסְפִּיק בְּצֵקָם שֶׁל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְהַחֲמִיץ
Why do we eat the Matzah on Pesach? Because the dough that our forefathers prepared in Egypt didn’t have time to rise before they had to leave. (They had to leave so quickly)
Thus, the matzah reminds us of both the slavery and the freedom, and as we eat it for the eight days of Pesach, the miracle of the exodus becomes more and more of a reality to us. This is the goal of Pesach, to try to make us feel as if we ourselves were in Egypt and were freed. This idea is stated clearly in the Haggadah.
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם
In every generation, one must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.
In this light, we understand the seder’s various components. The four cups of wine that celebrate the four stages of the redemption, the leaning as we drink them, the matzah and the maror, etc., are all intended to help us personally feel the exodus experience.
Yet there is one component of Pesach that doesn’t seem to fit with all of the above: the prohibition to eat or have any chometz in our possession. Why does the presence of matzah mean that there can be no chometz?
Our Sages teach us that “leaven”, that which makes the dough rise, is compared to theיצר הרע the evil inclination in a person. We find this in the statement of Rabbi Alexandrai in the Talmud (Berachot 17a).
ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם
After finishing his Amida, Rabbi Alexandrai would say the following: “Master of the Universe, it is open and revealed to You that our true desire is to fulfill Your desire. What is stopping us? The leaven in the dough (the materialistic part of us) and the kingdom in which we live (societal influence.) Please save us from them so we may fulfill Your desire as You wish us to.
The essence of a Jew is his pure soul, his spiritual component. This part of him is by definition pure and good. What influences the person to veer from what he knows to be right and do something wrong is his material part, his body.
The “leaven in the dough” is a perfect metaphor for the evil inclination because it works with two of the evil inclination’s most powerful tools, viz, laziness, and haughtiness. When a person makes bread, he starts with just flour and water in a small wad. The yeast is then added, and now one must wait a while for the dough to rise. No new ingredients have been added, yet, slowly, the yeast does its work and the clump of dough grows into a massive puffy ball full of air holes. It has grown so large that it is spilling over the sides of the huge bowl that had dwarfed it just a few hours ago. The new bulk looks so impressive, but it is really just full of air, and with little effort it can be “punched down” into the small wad that it was before.
Similarly, a person finds it difficult to get up and go to do a mitzvah. He always wants to just rest a little more and not push himself to move. A person’s default position is at rest. The lapse of time while the dough is rising corresponds to how a person allows time to lapse before doing a mitzvah, often losing the opportunity.
The evil inclination in a person also tends to pump him up into something greater than he is so that he looks and feels important without adding anything of value to his character. Just like the leavened dough, he is full of hot air.
These two primary negative traits prevent a person from committing himself to the proper performance of Hashem’s commandments. The laziness prevents him from getting started, and the haughtiness doesn’t let him humble himself to Hashem. He is here to serve himself.
Chometz is symbolic of these two negative traits, and on Pesach, when the theme is freedom, we seek to free ourselves of our evil inclinations as well. This represents the greatest freedom possible.
Our Sages take this idea to a higher level. They say (Ethics of the Fathers 6:2):
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ו
ב) אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, וְאוֹמֵר וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת, אל תִּקְרָא חָרוּת אֶלָּא חֵרוּת, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, “There is no free person in the world except one who learns Torah.”
This statement is difficult to understand. A religious person seems to have many more restrictions than anyone else. How does Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi call him the only free person in the world?
As counterintuitive as this seems, we know that the Sages are very careful about everything that they say. They never say something unless they have perceived the matter’s deepest depths. There is a hint to understanding this in Ethics of the Fathers: (4:1)
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ד
א) בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט), מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי. אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי טז), טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר וּמשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קכח), יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וטוֹב לָךְ, לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א ב), כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלוּ
Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from any person… Who is mighty? One who overcomes his own evil inclination… Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot… Who is respected? One who respects others…
The Sages are not concerned with a person’s external acquisitions, how much information he has memorized, how many pounds he can bench press, how much money he has, or how many times his name appears in the paper. The Sages rather are laser focused on the person himself, the essence of who he is.
Who is wise? The one who values wisdom and understands that it alone is the world’s most precious commodity, demonstrating so by gleaning knowledge from any source, even the simplest of people.
Who is mighty? The one who can overcome his burning urge to lash back at the person who has just embarrassed him, or the one who can keep to himself a juicy piece of gossip about his biggest enemy. A truly mighty person can control his most formidable opponent, himself, namely, his own evil inclination.
Who is wealthy? One who in his mind lacks nothing because he is perfectly happy with what he has. One who has a million dollars but wishes he had another million, is, in his mind, poor (!) by a million dollars!
Who is respected? One who understands the importance and value of each person, and, because of this, treats all others with the utmost respect because they are very special. This person, who personifies respect, is therefore a most respected person.
When our Sages speak about freedom, they do not mean who can go to the most places or do more things without restrictions. They are talking about the person’s essence.
From this perspective, someone who can carry out a conscious decision of what is the best course of action to follow under the circumstance instead of what his urges or inclinations push him to do is truly a free person. The one who gives in to his every whim and urge is the biggest slave in the world. This notion is counterintuitive, but a moment’s thought will yield how precisely accurate it is.
The mitzvah to search for the chometz on Thursday night before Pesach and its burning on Friday morning are to remind us that the real challenge ahead of us is to search the nooks and crannies of our soul and burn out the evil inclination. When we have accomplished that, we can begin to celebrate our true freedom.