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“The Matza that we eat for what reason? Because the dough of our forefathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.”
The Exodus from Egypt was sudden so sudden that “they could not tarry” and therefore “baked the dough which they had brought forth from Egypt into unleavened cakes (matzahs).” What would have transpired had our forefathers been given a little more time before leaving their homes in Egypt? Would they have utilized this time to bake the dough into loaves of bread to sustain them on their journey into the wilderness rather than bake it into matzahs? Or would they have baked the dough into matzahs in the comfort of their homes and transported them in this convenient form rather than carry dough on their shoulders and be forced to bake matzahs while on the road?
Both approaches find support in the commentaries with a preponderance in favor of the second one. The big problem facing this approach is how it was possible for our ancestors to carry the dough for so long without it becoming forbidden chametz a leavening that transpires if dough is left unattended for eighteen minutes.
The variety of solutions proposed range from the dough being miraculously baked by an extraordinarily blazing sun (Targum Yonatan ben Uziel), to the dough being steadily kneaded by the Jews carrying it on their shoulders for that purpose (Ohr Hachayim), to the distance being covered in miraculously short time as they were being “carried on eagles wings” (Ramban).
A particularly interesting approach is that of the great nineteenth century commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, whose analysis of another Midrash led him to the conclusion that the miracle was that G-d, Divine Author of Nature, simply repealed the natural law which dictates that unattended dough must become chametz!
Despite this fascinating divergence of approaches all are united in viewing the eating of matza on Pesach as a reminder of the speed with which Jews were liberated from Egypt. Why is this such a crucial factor?
We can easily understand the other features of the Seder. The bitter herbs of maror recall the bitterness of our bondage. The four cups of wine and the reclining are expressions of freedom from that bondage. The four cups of wine and the reclining are expressions of freedom from that bondage. But why is it so significant to highlight the speed with which this liberation was effected?
A charming incident, which took place in Jerusalem a number of decades ago, may help us unravel this mystery of the matza.
All the guests gathered around the wedding canopy excitedly waiting the big moment. The officiating rabbi, a sage renowned both for his Torah knowledge and practical wisdom, had concluded the opening blessings over a cup of wine and it was now the chatans turn to put a ring on the kallahs extended finger and say the magic words which would make them man and wife. This particular chatan was a bit more nervous than other grooms and he let the ring fall from his hand. As he bent down to pick it up, the father of the bride, who was apparently not very pleased with the match, muttered something about this perhaps being a Heavenly sign that the wedding should not take place.
The rabbi quickly defused a potentially explosive situation by declaring: “Yes, it is indeed a sign from Heaven.”
As the chatan, kallah and their parents and witnesses looked at him in bewilderment the rabbi continued: “It is a sign from Heaven that when he first took out the ring the time had not yet come for the marriage to begin. Now the time has finally come!”
The experience of Jews in Egypt was a preparation for their future role as the holy nation that would receive the Torah. Exile in a foreign land and the sufferings of backbreaking labor were the bricks that built the “forging furnace” of a nation which would learn to so abhor the moral corruption which had been imposed on them in Egypt that it would be enabled to go on to become a “light unto the nations.”
But if you stay too long in the forging furnace you can be destroyed. Our Sages tell us that there are fifty levels of spiritual corruption and our ancestors, in their physical and spiritual bondage had already reached the forty-ninth level. One moment longer in Egypt and they would have sunk to that fiftieth level from which there is no redemption.
Here then is the “catch twenty-two” situation of our ancestors in Egypt awaiting liberation. One moment too early and they lack the finishing touches of the forging furnace. One moment too late and they are beyond redemption.
Only the Divine Creator of time was capable of the perfect timing that was needed. Just as the climactic plague of the Death of the First Born took place exactly at midnight for reasons known only to G-d, the Exodus began at exactly the moment that we too can understand as being perfectly chosen as not too early and not too late.
So when we eat our matza we are reliving that experience of perfect timing that is so vital for us to remember in so many aspects of our national and individual lives. How often have Jews in their long exile felt a sense of impatience for the ultimate redemption for which the Exodus from Egypt was but a preview? The eating of matza on Pesach reminded them that there is a Divine plan in the length of our exile and that when Heaven determines that we have learned all that was necessary from our suffering our redemption will not be a moment late in coming.
How often has the individual Jew reached the brink of despair as he waited for his personal salvation in terms of a mate, of children, of good health, of financial and physical security? Matza reminded him too that the Mitzrayim (the Hebrew name for Egypt which literally translated means “straits”) constrictions in his life have their purpose and there is a perfect Divine schedule for when his own Exodus will arrive.
Now let us see what other lessons there are in the eating of matza beyond the issue of perfect timing.
Following the aforementioned approach that the dough taken out from Egypt was miraculously saved from becoming chametz we discern two different lessons from this Heavenly intervention in the leavening process. Whether it was the lightning speed of traveling “on eagles wings” or the blazing sun serving as a baker, we are witnesses to the Divine support provided for the Jew who puts trust in G-d.
The Torah stresses that our ancestors left Egypt in such a hurry that they took along no provisions other than the unbaked dough. This willingness to “follow Me into the wilderness, into an uncultivated land” earned us G-ds eternal love because it expressed our limitless trust in His providence.
The great Chassidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev thus explains the contrast between the name we use in referring to the holiday and the one that appears in the Torah. We call it “Pesach” but the Torah calls it “Chag Hamatzot” (the Festival of Matzahs). This is but another expression of the romantic relationship between G-d and His beloved people which is the theme of the sacred and beautiful “Shir Hashirim” (Song of Songs of King Solomon) which many Jews recite at the conclusion of the Seder.
“Pesach” means “pass over” and recalls the miraculous lovingkindness of G-d as he passed over the Jewish homes in Egypt as He slaughtered the firstborn in the Egyptian homes all around them. We call the holiday by this name to express our appreciation of G-d just as the tefillin we wear on our heads and arms contain the Torah chapter that proclaims that there is only one G-d.
That one G-d, in Whose tefillin is the Torah phrase which proclaims “who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the world”, praise our plunge into the wilderness with nothing more than the raw material for matza because we were so confident that G-d would provide.
The first vindication of that faith came with the miracle that prevented the dough from becoming chametz and condemned to burning. This was certainly an omen for all succeeding generations that trust in G-d will be rewarded with miraculous results even if they sometimes wear the veil of natural events.
If this approach has been a lesson in the physical protection represented by matza the approach of the Malbim offers a spiritual perspective as well.
What was the significance of G-d repealing the chemical law of fermentation at the time of the Exodus so that the dough of the fleeing Jews would not become leavened before being baked into matza?
The answer can be found in the special prayer that the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Alexandria, was accustomed to saying when he completed his regular daily prayers. “Sovereign of the Universe” he would begin his appeal, “it is clear to You that it is our desire to do Your will but we are prevented from doing so by the leavening agent in the dough.”
The yetzer hara, mans evil instinct, is thus referred to as the catalyst for chametz. Some commentaries focus on the single letter difference between the Hebrew words for matza and chametz to explain why one represents good and the other evil. Others simply point to the difference in their physical forms. Matza is simple and flat while chametz is inflated. All of human sin is rooted in either passion or pride, both of which are symbolized by the inflated bread, which mirrors satisfied appetites and blown-up egos.
On the eve of the Exodus Jews were treated to an unparalleled spiritual experience which all of us get at least a tiny taste of when we sit at the Seder table and attempt to relive that experience. But what was going to keep them on a high spiritual level for the next seven weeks till they reached Sinai and received the Torah? Were they condemned to exchange the chains of the physical bondage to the evil instinct that would ferment their souls?
G-d provided the answer to these doubts by demonstrating that He can momentarily suspend the power of the leavening agent to turn the dough into chametz. In similar fashion our ancestors were assured that the leavening agent within them would also have no power to serve as a catalyst for corruption.
This was a dramatic, tangible expression of that famous Divine guarantee of spiritual security: “Make for Me an opening like the eye of a needle and I will make for you an opening like a great hall.”
Matza thus reminds us that as difficult as it may seem to overcome the natural forces of passion and pride represented by chametz, we must always remember that the Creator of those forces can suspend their power over us. All that is required is the first step taken by us to open a needles eye measure of desire to improve. In Egypt it was the courage of Jews to take the local deity and offer it as a sacrifice to Heaven which provided that first step which led to such great spiritual heights that reached their climax at Sinai. For Jews in every generation the eating of matza should serve as a reminder that we must not hesitate to take a little step in coming closer to G-d because we can be confident that He will turn it into a giant step for us, our people and all mankind.