The Talmud (1) poses the following question: Why is it prohibited to eat or to possess chametz (leaven), such as bread, on Pesach? What is there in the nature of leaven that makes it forbidden on Pesach? For that matter, why only on Pesach? And what is so special about matza that makes it the most desirable food on this holiday but not throughout the rest of the year?
Rather than give a straight answer, the Talmud responds by asking yet another question. Why do people sin? Understanding that human beings will continue to transgress, the Talmud analyzes one of the paradoxes inherent in the human condition. Most people desire to do good yet constantly struggle with their evil inclination. Realizing that this inclination is extremely difficult to overcome, the Talmud suggests that human beings, especially Jews, make the following declaration whenever they try to obey the laws of the Torah but fail to do so:
“Lord of the Universe, You know very well that it is our desire to do Your will; so what prevents us from doing so? The yeast in the dough…”
This phrase, “the yeast in the dough,” appears frequently in the Talmud as a description of people’s evil impulse, and we need to understand the comparison. What is so wrong with leaven that it is designated as a symbol of our evil urge?
Bread, chametz, is really an inflated matza. What, after all, is the essential difference between the two? They are made from exactly the same ingredients – flour and water – and baked in the oven. It is only the speed at which they are prepared that makes matza flat and hard, while bread comes out soft and fluffy. If we bake the dough quickly, we get matza. If the dough is left for a while, it will rise and become bread.
Essentially, then, the only real difference between the two is hot air – an ingredient devoid of substance!
It is this element that makes bread look so powerful and enticing in comparison to matza. It rises, becoming haughty and giving the impression that it consists of much substance, while in reality it is just a cracker full of hot air. Matza, on the other hand, is humble and true to itself; there is no attempt to appear as anything more than it is – plain dough.
Bread, then, is haughty matza, thus symbolizing the evil inclination. For it is the attitude of arrogance—blowing oneself up beyond what one truly is—that, more than any other bad character trait, leads us to go astray. If human beings would just be humble, recognizing their place vis-à-vis God, they would never even contemplate transgressing His will. Only arrogance leads one to choose an undesirable path.
On Pesach, the festival during which we commemorate and re-experience our inception as the Jewish people, we are once again reminded that our mission to become a light unto the nations can begin only with the spirit of true humility. So, arrogance can never be the foundation of spirituality and moral integrity. It cannot truly inspire others, certainly not with any lasting effect.
But this begs the question: If chametz is the epitome of the evil inclination, why didn’t the Torah forbid its consumption throughout the entire year?
In a remarkable passage, the Talmud (2) relates that the Sages wanted to destroy the evil inclination, since it is the source of much devastating harm. They therefore went to look for it and ultimately found it in, of all places, the Holy of Holies where it emerged as a “fiery lion.” They imprisoned it for three days after which they decided to kill it. Subsequently, they were looking for a freshly laid egg to heal an ill person, but they couldn’t find even one. They realized that the imprisonment of the evil inclination was what led to this deficiency. Without the evil inclination, not only would no egg be laid but the human race and the animal world would come to an end, since the sexual urge embedded in the evil inclination would be eliminated. Not knowing what to do, the Sages decided “to blind it” so that it would not overpower a man and cause him to have illicit relations – for example, with his mother or his sister – but they left it alive and set it free!
Without chametz – the “leaven in the dough” and the source of the evil inclination – the world would not endure. Only for a short while can the world exist without physical desire and arrogance. It would not survive the long haul.
Pesach, the holiday that symbolizes the formation of the Jewish people, reminds us that sometimes we need to remove the evil inclination entirely so as not to fall victim to it. Not a crumb should be left behind. But once we have absorbed this message, we must return to it in a responsible way so as to continue building the world.
Too much arrogance, the root of the evil inclination, may be bad. However, we must realize that there is also a healthy form of arrogance that motivates us to accept responsibility and believe in ourselves, especially when we need to push ourselves beyond our limits in order to accomplish the “impossible.” It leads us to take action and use our urges in ways that help us grow, thereby making it a source of infinite blessing.
It is permanently found in the Holy of Holies.
Blessed are those who eat chametz and keep away from too much matza!
1. Brachot 17a.
2. Yoma 69b.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank
We suggest printing out and discussing at your Shabbat table, if you like.
1: Rav Cardozo asks why we eat matza specifically on Pesach – but weren’t matzot very common in the ancient world and eaten all year round, not only on Pesach? Lot, for example, offered his guests matzot, and matzot are mentioned in the context of sacrifices. Also, doesn’t the answer to Rav Cardozo’s question lie in the Torah? We are told that there was no time for the bread to rise. Why is this explanation not sufficient?
2: Rav Cardozo’s explanation of the Talmud seems rather apologetic. Especially because in the time of the Talmud, bread was not fluffy at all! According to many, the difference was only in the flavor. How can we reconcile this?
3: Apparently the midrash considers sexual or physical desire evil, or at least a compromise. But isn’t procreation an ideal in Judaism, not a compromise? Do you see the midrash as conflicting with that view?
4: To need humility and to be a “light unto the nations” is always relevant. What does this have to do specifically with Pesach and slavery? Do you think we need these messages to be conveyed particularly powerfully at Pesach time? Why would that be?
5: Do you agree that there is a healthy form of arrogance? Have you seen this in others – and do you feel you yourself have achieved the right balance?
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