Of Matzot and Mitzvot
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 21, 2000
"Haste is Satan's most trusted companion," Hafez Assad is reported to have told President Clinton during their recent tete-a-tete in Geneva. Clinton, whose days in office are ticking away, was no doubt disappointed to hear such sentiments from the Syrian leader, whose days are rumored to be even more dramatically numbered. He would have preferred the attitude of Prime Minister Barak, who has bought into the timetable for Clinton's Nobel Peace Prize bid and rushed headlong to offer Assad the entire Golan.
Assad could have quoted Jewish sources as easily as Syrian folk sayings. "Be deliberate in judgment," is the very first piece of advice that has come down to us from the Men of the Great Assembly (Ethics of the Fathers 1:l). That advice encompasses everything we do, for the essence of our lives is the exercise of judgment.
In one area, however, we are commanded to move with alacrity. "When a mitzva comes into your hand, don't let it ferment (literally, become hametz.)," our sages instruct us. They learn the requirement of hurrying to do a mitzva from the identical Hebrew orthography of the words mitzvot (commandments) and matzot.
The requirement that the matza must be placed in the oven within 18 minutes of the flour and water first being mixed together is derived from the verse, "And you shall guard the matzot." And the same is said to be true of mitzvot: One cannot tarry in their performance.
From our sages' comparison of the performance of mitzvot to the baking of matzot, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner pointed out, we gain a major insight.
A matza that does not make it into the oven in time is no matza, and eating it on Pesach is a very serious transgression. Similarly a mitzva done lackadaisically is not just missing an added beautification; the very form of the mitzva is absent.
To understand why that should be so, we have to first realize that the eagerness to perform a mitzva is not like the eagerness to marry a millionaire or for fame and adulation - both of which can engender extraordinary efforts.
The difference lies not just in the object of desire. Rather the eagerness to do a mitzva is a function of the relationship of our souls to the material, created world.
Our sages compare the soul in this world to a princess married to a coarse country bumpkin. The princess, raised on the delicacies of the royal palace, will never be satisfied with anything her husband brings her. She yearns to return to her father's house.
So it is with the soul. The soul yearns to escape the bounds of the world of space and time. (Time, too, is an aspect of the created world. The blessing "He who created bereishit" - the beginning - refers to the creation of time, writes the Vilna Gaon.) The soul seeks to be reunited with its divine source. In this world, that desire to unite with God finds its expression in the eagerness to perform mitzvot.
The Jewish people exist outside the confines of space and time. The normal rules of historical causality do not apply to us. For that reason every material explanation of history has foundered on the continued existence of the Jewish people, raising the ire of all those, from Marx to Toynbee, who sought to encompass all of human history in their formulas.
Prior to the Covenant of the Pieces, at which God informed our forefather Abraham of the destiny of his progeny, including their sojourn in a land not their own, God first lifted Abraham above the world of the constellations.
Abraham was told that the fate of his descendants would be a function of divine providence not historical necessity.
The Jewish people came into existence with the exodus from Egypt. Precisely at the moment of our formation as a people, God again removed us from the bounds of time and gathered us together in an instant. The matza we eat every year at the Seder is a reminder of the haste with which we left Egypt - a haste that left no time for leavening.
God took us out of Egypt in order to give us the Torah. The mitzvot of the Torah are our unique possession, the reason for our special destiny. Those mitzvot should reflect our national existence, which is above time and space.
They must be driven by a soul seeking to cleave to God.
Mitzvot lacking that urgency, writes the Maharal of Prague, fall under the dominion of time. At the deepest level, they resemble hametz on Pesach.
Matza is called "poor bread." The poverty, however, is not in the bread but in ourselves. The matza itself is spiritual bread, composed only of its essential elements. It symbolizes the world of spirit, which is one of simplicity and unity.
As we eat the matza, we are reminded of how far we are from the world of spirit. Most of us can barely digest a week's worth of matza. Our physical selves are not at the level to eat spiritual bread more than one week of the year. The matza forces upon us the recognition of our limitations: "We seek to do Your will," we cry out to God, "but the leavening within, our physicality, holds us back and slows us down." As we eat the matza this year, may we all merit to experience the independence of a soul removed, if only for an instant, from the limitations of time and space.
A hag kasher vesameah to all.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Pesach
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