Of mitzvos and matzos
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
March 31, 2004
Many explanations are offered as to the meaning of the Haggadah’s description of matzah as "ìçîà òðéà – usually translated as "poor bread." But surely one of the most interesting is that of the Rashba.
It is not the bread that is poor, the Rashba informs us, but we who are poor. Matzah is called poor bread because it reveals to us our own spiritual impoverishment. Just as we lack the power to look directly at the light of the sun, so do we lack the capacity to digest spiritual bread – matzah – more than one week a year. As physical creatures, we are not yet prepared for spiritual bread. And that inability serves as a reminder that we have failed to elevate our physical bodies to the point where they are fitting vessels for our souls.
But how does matzah represent the spiritual side of our being and leavened bread the opposite. The world of Spirit is characterized by unity because its source is Hashem, Who is One. The physical world, by contrast, is characterized by division. All that exists in the physical realm is comprised of finite blocks of matter joined together to one another. And so too the dimension of time consists of individual moments, one after another, measured by processes of disintegration of physical matter.
Matzah consists of only that which is absolutely essential – flour and water – and therefore symbolizes the essential unity of the spiritual world. It lacks chametz, all that is puffed up, added on, unnecessary to its essential function.
The Hebrew root of the word chametz signifies holding back or retarding. Chametz symbolizes the forces of physicality that hold us back from expressing our deepest desire – i.e., to serve Hashem. Thus our Sages portray the Jewish people as crying out to Hashem, "We seek to do Your will but the leavening in the dough [figuratively, our evil inclination] prevents us from doing so."
If chametz holds the soul back from giving expression to its desire for a connection with Hashem, matzah represents the exact opposite process – a desire to be free from all limitations of time. The key aspect of the matzah that we explicate at the Seder is its connection to the speed with which Hashem gathered us together to leave Egypt: "This matzah that we eat – to what does it refer? To the fact that the dough of our ancestors had no chance to rise before the King of kings, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, revealed himself to them and redeemed them."
The point is not just that we were redeemed in a hurry, but that at the moment of our birth as a nation Hashem lifted us above the constraints of time, as well as space. The quality of netzach Yisrael implanted in us at that moment refers not just to the eternity of the Jewish people, but to this quality of being above time.
The late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, HaRav Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l, explicated this quality of the Jewish people in his first ma’amar on Pesach. He begins with Chazal’s well-known play on the identical Hebrew orthography of matzos and mitzvos: ’ushmartem es hamatzos’ (Shemos 12:17) -- From here we learn that what should not delay (ein machmitzin) [in the performance of] the mitzvos."
Chazal are teaching us a fundamental principle in the performance of mitzvos, writes Rabbi Hutner. In general, we think of the quality of zrizus (eagerness) in mitzvos as a enhancement or beautification of the mitzvah, but not something essential to the mitzvah itself. By comparing matzos and mitzvos, Chazal seek to uproot that false conception. Just as matzos that are unguarded – i.e., where the water and flower are combined more than 18 minutes before entering the oven – cannot be eaten during Pesach, so a mitzvah lacking the quality of zrizus is fundamentally deficient. In the terminology of the Maharal, it has come under the dominion of time.
To understand why the absence of zrizus is a fundamental flaw in a mitzvah, we first require a deeper understanding of zrizus. Normally we understand zrizus as a manifestation of great desire for a certain object. According to this view, the term would apply equally to the great desire some manifest for fame and fortune, on the one hand, and the desire to perform a mitzvah, on the other. While the quality of the object might change, the basic middah of zrizus would remain the same.
That, Rabbi Hutner proves, cannot be the case. For if so, zrizus would be included in Chazal’s list of middos that can be learned from the denizens of the animal kingdom (Eruvin 100b). Certainly many animals manifest great desire for particular objects. And indeed the wisest of all men specifically commended the zrizus of the ant: "Lazy one go [learn from] the ant" (Mishlei 6:6).
That verse in Mishlei actually holds the key to understanding zrizus. The efforts of the ant cannot be driven by desire for a particular object. The ant lives but six months, and its total consumption is no more than a grain and a half, yet it stores away hundreds of kurim of grain in its lifetime. The ant labors oblivious to time. And that is a spiritual trait unlike the natural traits that can be learned from other members of the animal kingdom.
"The nefesh can never be fulfilled" (Koheles 6:7). Chazal explain with the moshol of 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 Jewish soul. Our soul comes from the upper worlds and can find no satisfaction with pleasures of this world. It seeks 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 reunite with God finds its expression in the zrizus to perform mitzvos.
Like the princess in the moshol, the Jewish people are the children of royalty, of the King of kings. At the beginning of his confrontation with Pharoah, Moshe Rabbeinu tells him, in Hashem’s name, "My firstborn son is Yisrael" (Shemos 4:22). At the moment of our birth as a nation, when Hashem gathered us in the flash of an eye to take us out of Egypt, we became His children and He planted in us the desire of the soul to break free from all bonds of time and space.
The spiritual bread of matzos that we eat during Pesach reminds us of that moment and of the unique quality with which we were imbued – to be Hashem’s children seeking always to dwell in His house, above all limitations of space and time.
Related Topics: Pesach, World Jewry
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