It’s interesting. Matzah is just flour and water which, the Maharal explains, is why it is representative of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. The World to Come is sublimely simple, and flour and water is about as simple as it gets when it comes to food.
But Chometz can also be just flour and water, without the yeast, and yet it is representative of Olam HaZeh—this world. How can the same thing represent two completely opposite realities?
The answer: time. It is the extra “ingredient” that transforms a dough into chometz. For a dough of flour and water not to become chometz, it cannot sit unworked for 18 minutes. At 18 minutes, the gematria of chai—life, a dough becomes chometz, so you either have to keep working it or bake it within that time. Hence, just as time is the fundamental difference between this transient world and the next one which is eternal, it is also the difference between matzah and chometz.
Another interesting part of the matzah story to do with time is that we are told that we eat matzah because the Jewish people left Egypt b’chipazon, in a hurry and, therefore we didn’t have enough time to make bread. Yet, though Pharaoh wanted the Jewish people to leave immediately the night of the death of the firstborn, God said no. Instead, He delayed our departure and had us leave the next day in broad daylight in full view of the Egyptians.
So why then did we have to leave Egypt so quickly? Because we had descended to the dangerously low level of the 49th level of spiritual impurity? Not really. That was only true before the first plague had begun, which is why God cut the exile short. By the tenth plague, the forces of evil were down and almost out, which meant that the force of good was strong. It was Pharaoh who went door to door looking for Moshe and Aharon to beg them to leave, not the other way around.
Redemption, it would seem, like a good joke is a matter of timing. Or more accurately, it is a matter of time. In fact, it is time that we are actually escaping, what the rest of the world calls “Old Man Time.” Most enemies can be eluded in one way or another, but not time. People have searched for the fountain of youth since time immemorial, and that is really what the golden calf was about. The gold represented eternity and the calf, unbridled youth. They should have eaten matzah instead.
WHEN YA’AKOV AVINU first stood before Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him his age. It’s not clear from Pharaoh’s question why he had to know this, but it is from Ya’akov’s answer:
The days of the years of my sojournings are 130 years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings. (Bereishis 47:9)
Apparently Pharaoh had been surprised by Ya’akov’s appearance. He had expected a man of God and father of a vibrant Yosef to look the part. Instead Ya’akov looked worn, causing Ya’akov to explain his appearance. He did in 33 words, and for each word he spoke he lost a year of life, dying at 147 years of age instead of 180 like his father, or 175 like his grandfather.
There are discussions as to what exactly Ya’akov did wrong to be punished like that. Perhaps Ya’akov should have answered Pharaoh with something like, “Don’t worry, Pharaoh. I may look old and tired, but I’m not even going to die like the rest of you who spend so much time and money on preserving your youth.” As the Gemora says, “Ya’akov didn’t die” (Ta’anis 5b).
And of course there is Moshe Rabbeinu. He didn’t live as long as Ya’akov Avinu, but by his time, 120 years of age was already very old. And though he reportedly went the way of most human beings, there was a huge difference:
Moshe was 120 years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his moisture. (Devarim 34:7)
To live to 120 and retain perfect eyesight and youthful skin would be remarkable for anyone. However, Rashi explains, as remarkable as that is, it isn’t what the verse is talking about. The verse is talking about after he died:
His eye had not dimmed: Even after he died…nor had he lost his moisture: [Even after his death,] decomposition did not take over his body, nor did the appearance of his face change. (Rashi)
Fascinating, but what good does perfect eyesight and skin do for a person after they are dead? True, we are told, the bodies of tzaddikim do not decompose after death, but did we think otherwise would have happened to the body of the great prophet of God to have ever lived…who was able to be on Har Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights without eating…twice…who talked to God face-to-face, so-to-speak? So what then is the Torah telling us?
WHY DID GOD use 10 plagues to free the Jewish people, and not just one? And why did He make the Jewish people double back and become stranded by the sea, only to save them by splitting the sea and unsplitting it to drown the Egyptians? Yetzias Mitzrayim was, in modern day language, “over the top.”
The Leshem asks this question and answers it. There was a single message in all of it that can be traced back to matzah in the end. Yes, Yetzias Mitzrayim was about physically leaving Egypt and slavery. But more importantly, it was about a higher level of freedom, one that is supposed to be part-and-parcel with being a Jew.
This was the message inherent in the following episode in the Gemora:
One Friday night he (Rebi Chanina ben Dosa) noticed that his daughter was sad and asked her, “My daughter, why are you sad?”
She answered, “My oil container got mixed up with my vinegar container and I lit Shabbos candles with it.”
He told her, “My daughter, Why should this trouble you? He Who had commanded the oil to burn will also command the vinegar to burn!”
A Tanna taught: The light continued to burn the whole day until they used its light for Havdalah. (Ta’anis 25a)
And she was sad about this? The rest of us would have been tickled to see the miracle, and would have gleefully called over everyone we could find to witness the spectacle! Why was such a wonderful miracle reason for concern for Rebi Chanina’s daughter?
Because miracles are not free (Shabbos 32a). If they happen for a person, they can end up costing a person a deduction of merits in the World to Come. That’s a little like cashing in your retirement savings plan early and paying all the taxes, instead of waiting for retirement and paying almost no taxes. Rebi Chanina’s daughter probably would have rather gone one Shabbos without light than cash in on future merits to make vinegar burn for 26 hours.
So Rebi Chanina, who was no stranger to miracles, put things into perspective for his daughter. A miracle is only a miracle, he reminded her, for the person who believes in the rigidity of nature. For the person who lives with the reality that nature is just consistent miracle, then vinegar burning like oil is just as “natural” as oil burning as oil.
That wasn’t just a message for the daughter of Rebi Chanina. It was also a message for the entire Jewish people throughout history. It was a message that God Himself personally delivered through all the miracles He performed for the Jewish people “over the top.” It is also the fundamental message of matzah, as well as this statement in Pirkei Avos:
This world is like a corridor before the World to Come. Rectify yourself in the corridor in order to be able to enter the Banquet Hall (Pirkei Avos 4:16).
Rectify ourselves how? By using every moment that we have in this time-bound world to earn reward in timeless Olam HaBa. And as we do this, we don’t just earn eternal life in the World to Come, we begin to experience it even in this world, even while the rest of the world remains enslaved to time and death.
Externally to an onlooker, such a person may not look any different than anyone else. But to the person themself, the difference is remarkable and exhilarating. Because at the end of the day, time only matters to people who are bound by it. But what difference does it make if a person lives a 100-year old mediocre life, or 80 years that feel like the bliss of Olam HaBa, even just a little?
A huge difference, but not for the 100-year old, but for the 80-year old. The 100-year old will die feeling at least 100, but the 80-year old will die feeling as if they lived a wonderful eternity within only 80 years. This is what the matzah tells us, that by living by Torah and rising above time, we avoid becoming “chometz” and weighed down by this very temporal world.
Ain Od Milvado, Part 45
THIS IS ALSO what helps a person properly integrate the reality of ain od Milvado, which is what we’re aiming for the night of the Seder. The entire Seder has been set up to help us achieve this by reminding us how far God was, and is, willing to bend the “laws” of nature for the Jewish people.
Like someone bending hard metal, God bent the laws of nature slowly, step by step. He began with miracles that could be mistaken for sorcery. Then performed miracles that forced the Egyptians to admit it was the “finger of God.” These were finally followed by miracles that were clearly the “hand” and outstretched “arm” of God. We were shown this, God later told us, so that we could know that God is our God, and there is none other than Him.
This is why, even though we have a deadline of Chatzos to eat the Afikomen, a sense of timelessness seems to pervade the evening. It just seems to be there in the background, especially when the Haggadah and Seder seem to somehow connect us through time with the first Seder in Mitzrayim. It’s not just fun we’re having. It is another world experience we get to enjoy, as light from the future reality of Techiyas HaMeisim—resurrection of the dead—seeps into our reality in the here-and-now.
Mitzrayim was, and remains to be, a dead weight that drags us back down to the temporal reality of this mundane world. The name itself implies constriction, physical constriction and the constriction of time. Most of the week it pulls at us through all the concerns of everyday life, especially as chaos makes its way back into our history.
We’re supposed to leave all that behind at Seder, and really for the whole week of Pesach. The light that comes down that night until Chatzos is from a period of time when all evil and mundanity will be no more, and time will be far less binding. We’re supposed to achieve this all year round though learning Torah and performing mitzvos, but an overly academic approach to both limits their impact on us. The Seder, by lifting us above that approach to life, is supposed to re-ignite our more spiritual and eternal potential.
My book Redemption to Redemption goes into a lot more detail about this, and especially with respect to the Haggadah itself.
Chag Kasher Pesach v’Samayach. Have a wonderful and “liberating” Seder and Pesach. Pinchas Winston