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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tzav/Pesach: Matzah, to eat or not to eat

Summary

Anyone who did not explain the Pesach offering, Matzah and Marror on Pesach [night] did not fulfill his obligation. We are free to eat any kind of meat or vegetable but if we wish to eat bread we have to eat matzah and cannot eat chametz. The Hebrew letters for the words "chametz" and "matzah" are almost identical. It is only at a later stage that the differences between the disciples of Abraham and Bilam become apparent. When Jacob and Eisav became teenagers they developed their different character traits. Just like we have to watch the dough of the matzah and may not leave it for an extended time, similarly when a mitzvah comes our way we should not leave it but as soon as the opportunity arises we should fulfill the mitzvah. If we manage to keep the rising agent out of our dough we will stay humble like the matzah and not elevate ourselves like the chametz. G'd wants the Jewish people to live a normal life acting like any other human being; therefore, we are not restricted to eating matzah all the time. The Rambam teaches in his Introduction to Pirkei Avot that the preferred way that G'd wants us to conduct ourselves is to find the golden middle way rather than going to extremes. After the week of Pesach has passed, we are expected to be ready to return to the regular weekday and remember the lesson of the matzah even when we eat our chametz. This is somewhat similar to the Nazirite who should return to a normal life with the expectation that he has learned a lesson of restraint during the time of his being a Nazirite. In the Temple the vast majority of the meal offerings had to be made from unleavened matzah. After Pesach and outside the Temple we shall appear as proud members of G'd's holy nation but within us we shall always remember the message of the matzah and humble ourselves in front of G'd and our fellow human beings.

Pesach, Matzah, Marror

In the Haggadah that we read Seder night, we quote Rabban Gamliel who used to say, "Anyone who did not explain these three things on Pesach [night] did not fulfill his obligation. And these are the three things: Pesach [offering], Matzah, and Marror." He explains that at the time of the Temple our ancestors would eat the Pesach offering to commemorate that G'd passed over the Jewish houses in Egypt and saved the Jewish first born males on the night of Pesach when every other first born male was killed. (This "passing over" is why Pesach has become known as "Passover".) He further explains that we eat unleavened Matzah because in the morning of the exodus from Egypt the Jews were driven to leave the country. In their haste they had to bake matzah as there was not enough time to allow the dough to rise. Finally, says Rabbi Gamliel, we eat Marror, bitter vegetables, to remember how the Egyptians made the lives of our ancestors bitter with hard work.

Not eat chametz

Unlike the Pesach offering and the Marror, which are only to be consumed on Seder night, the Torah instructs us to eat Matzah for the total seven days of the Festival of Pesach. Our sages explain that we are only obligated to eat Matzah on Seder night. We are informed that if we want to eat bread the rest of the week we cannot eat any chametz. The only kind of bread that is permissible throughout the Festival is Matzah. We do not find a similar obligation concerning the Pesach offering, if we wish to eat meat, or concerning Marror if we want to eat vegetables. We are free to eat any kind of meat or vegetables just like the rest of the year. This clearly indicates that Matzah has a special message in connection with the Festival of Pesach.

Chametz and Matzah

The commentaries point out that the Hebrew letters for the words "chametz" and "matzah" are almost identical. Both contain the letters "mem" and "tzaddik". However, the word "matzah" is written with a "hey" whereas the word "chametz" is written with a "chet" and even these two letters are almost identical. The only difference is that the "chet" has a complete left leg and the "hey" has an incomplete left leg. This symbolizes that when one starts to prepare the dough there are no apparent differences whether this will be suited to be used for the unleavened matzah or for leavened chametz bread. Similarly, it can be very difficult to discern at an initial stage between right and wrong, good and evil, or between truth and falsehood. Only at the time of the final product we can clearly see the difference.

Abraham and Bilam

We find a similar point in Pirkei Avot (5:22). The Mishnah discusses the character traits of the disciples of our Patriarch Abraham who are described as kind, humble and as keeping a low profile. On the other hand, the disciples of the wicked Bilam are described as evil, arrogant and greedy. The Mishnah continues and poses an oratorical question: "What is the difference between the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Bilam?" This seems strange as the difference in their character traits have already been clearly defined. Here again the answer is that initially you may not notice the difference between the two kinds of disciples. It is only at a later stage that their differences become apparent.

Jacob and Eisav

We find the same concept by Jacob and Eisav. Our sages (see Rashi Bereishis 25:27) explain that they seemed very similar when they were young. Only when they became teenagers did they develop their different character traits. At that point everyone could see that Jacob was a quiet, studious, righteous person, whereas Eisav turned out to be a man of the sword who was ready to do anything to satisfy his desires.

Watch the matzahs

Right at the beginning of the birth of our nation, when G'd instructed the Jewish people with our first commandments regarding the Festival of Pesach, G'd wanted to teach us to be aware and careful how we develop. On the verse (Shemos 12:17) "And you shall watch the Matzot", Rashi quotes two interpretations from our sages. The simple meaning is that you shall watch the dough to make sure it does not become leavened. But there is a deeper message transmitted in this verse. The word "matzot" can also be read "mitzvot" meaning commandments. From the preparation of matzah we learn a general rule regarding all commandments. Just like we have to watch the dough of the matzah and may not leave it for an extended time (eighteen minutes) similarly when a mitzvah comes our way we should not leave it but as soon as the opportunity arises we should fulfill the mitzvah.

A little sour dough

Already at the beginning of Creation, the first man, Adam, was described as "a bread formed from a dough" (see Midrash Tanchuma Parashas Noah 7 and Rashi Shabbos 32a). We are all descendants of Adam and as such we are all considered a product of dough. It is therefore not surprising that the Talmud (Berachos 17a) describes our evil inclination as a little volume of sour dough that is mixed into the dough and makes it rise. The question is how can we make sure that as individuals our "dough" should not be influenced by our evil inclination and rise and become leavened? The answer is that we must train ourselves to be like Matzah. In regular chametz dough, one adds a little sour dough or other ingredient to make it rise. This complete recipe is symbolized by the complete leg of the "chet" in the word "chametz". The matzah lacks this ingredient and therefore stays unleavened, as symbolized by the incomplete leg of the "hei" in the word "matzah". This is the secret. If we manage to keep the rising agent out of our dough we will stay humble like matzah and not elevate ourselves like chametz. This is what we pray for three times daily, at the end of the Shemona Esrei, when we ask G'd for assistance that our soul should be like dust to everyone. There is no more volume in the leavened chametz bread than in the unleavened matzah. It is just that the rising ingredient makes the chametz appear larger. If we manage to conquer and control our evil inclination we will be like the unleavened matzah, with the character traits of the disciples of Abraham, and following in the footsteps of Jacob.

Normal life

However, the question arises if this is G'd's message to the Jewish people, right from our inception, as symbolized by the matzah, why do we not always have to eat matzah? Would it not be better for us to avoid the arrogance of the leavened chametz bread as a constant reminder to maintain our humility and modesty? The eagerness and swiftness with which the matzah is produced further teach us how to approach any commandment as we mentioned above. As such it would seem that the matzah is a perfect constant reminder how to conduct ourselves in our daily lives. The answer is that G'd wants the Jewish people to live a normal life acting like any other human being and not be restricted to the matzah and its lessons all the time. However, if that is the case, what is the purpose of obligating us to eat matzah for one week every year?

Golden middle way

We find the answer to this in the words of the Rambam. The Rambam teaches in his Introduction to Pirkei Avos that in regard to character traits G'd wants us to conduct ourselves by the golden middle way rather than going to extremes. However, says the Rambam, if a person has a flaw in his character, in order to rectify this flaw, he must first go to the other extreme and break his bad habit and character trait. At a later stage when he has conquered the particular evil inclination of his bad character trait, he should return to the golden middle way and conduct himself accordingly. For example, someone who is a big spender and uses his money for unimportant acquisitions shall break his bad habit by going to the other extreme and act in a miserly way. Once he feels that he has broken the inclination to spend money without any restraint, he can allow himself to pursue the golden middle way, spending his money according to his means on things he really needs. On the other hand, if he is a miser who cannot get himself to spend money for even basic needs, in order to rectify this he should force himself to spend excessively even for things he does not really need. And again, when he feels that he has managed to conquer his miserly ways he can start spending his money wisely in an appropriate way.

Return to regular weekday

Every year G'd wants us to spend one week going to the extreme of not eating any leavened chametz but only matzah. Throughout this week we are reminded of the evil of being haughty and arrogant which makes us look like leavened dough. After the week of Pesach has passed, we are expected to be ready to return to the regular weekday and remember the lesson of the matzah even when we eat our chametz.

Nazirite

This is somewhat similar to the Nazirite who would abstain from drinking wine for a minimum of thirty days. He would further neglect his appearance by letting his hair grow wild, and at the same time elevate himself to an extreme level of purity by avoiding any contact with a deceased person. But after his time is over, the Nazirite should return to a normal life with the expectation that he had learned a lesson of restraint during the time of his being a Nazirite.

Inside the Temple

We find that in the Temple the vast majority of the meal offerings had to be made from unleavened matzah. As it says in last week's Torah portion (Vayikra 2:11-12) "All meal offerings that you bring to G'd shall not be prepared leavened ... You shall offer them as first-fruit-offering to G'd, but they may not be brought up on the altar." In this week's portion we find that even the Kohanim would in general not be permitted to prepare their portion of the meal offering into leavened bread. As it says (Vayikra 6:7-9) "And this is the law of the meal offering: The sons of Aaron shall bring it before G'd to the front of the altar And the leftovers shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons. It shall be eaten as matzot in a holy place in the courtyard of the Ohel Moed [Tabernacle] It shall not be baked as chametz." Any Jew who would enter the Temple to bring an offering would be taught a lesson of humbleness and modesty by the nature of the meal offering. Also the Kohanim, who had a special position as the servants of G'd, doing the service in the Sanctuary, would be reminded of the lessons of the unleavened matzah when they consumed their portion of the offering.

Outside the Temple

However, outside the Temple there were no restrictions on eating chametz. G'd did not want the Jewish people to walk around feeling or appearing like flat matzahs on a constant basis. After Pesach and outside the Temple we are expected to appear as proud members of G'd's holy nation but within us we shall always remember the message of the matzah and humble ourselves in front of G'd and our fellow human beings.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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