In Memory of Yehuda Avner z.l.
Ambassador To Israel
The Talmud poses the following question: Why is it prohibited to eat or to possess chametz (leavened food) on Pesach? What is there in the nature of chametz that makes it forbidden on Pesach? And what is so special about matzah that makes it the most desirable food to eat on this holiday?
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 of the human condition. Man wants to do good deeds, yet he constantly struggles with his evil inclination. Realizing that this inclination is extremely difficult to overcome, the Talmud suggests that human beings, particularly Jews, make the following declaration whenever they have tried to obey the laws of the Torah but have failed to do so:
“Lord of the Universe, You know very well that it is our desire to act according to Your will; but 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 man’s evil impulse, and we need to understand the comparison. What is so wrong with leavened food that designates it as a symbol for the evil urge in man? A closer look reveals a most fascinating idea.
Bread, which is chametz, is really an inflated matzah. What, after all, is the essential difference between the two? They are both made from exactly the same ingredients – flour and water – and baked in the oven. It is only the speed at which it is prepared that determines whether it will become matzah, which is flat and hard, or bread, which is soft and fluffy. If we bake the dough quickly, we get matzah. If the dough is left for a while, it will rise and become bread.
Therefore, 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 matzah. 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. Matzah, 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 matzah, 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 man to go astray. If a human being would just be humble, recognizing his place vis-à-vis God, he would never contemplate transgressing His will. Only arrogance prompts man to choose an undesirable path.
On Pesach, the festival when we commemorate and re-experience our inception as the Jewish people, we are once more reminded that our mission, to be a light unto the nations, can be carried out only in the spirit of true humility. Arrogance can never be the foundation of spirituality and moral integrity. Hubris cannot truly inspire others, nor will it have any positive lasting effect.
Consequently, the art of spiritual growth is to become more like a matzah in a world full of chametz.
(*) Brachot 17a.
Questions to Ponder:
1. Based on the above argument, why is chametz not prohibited throughout the whole year? For a possible answer, see Tractate Yoma 69b – an account of the Sages’ attempt to imprison the evil inclination.
2. If chametz indeed symbolizes haughtiness and the evil inclination, how necessary is it to spend days upon days cleaning our houses before Pesach in order to dispose of all leavened foods? Are we perhaps missing the point by focusing too much on the technical aspect of the mitzvah rather than on the reason behind it? Might a better preparation for Pesach involve spending time meditating on how best to achieve authentic humility?