Pesach is the first of the Jewish holidays, the holiday which forms the foundation of our religious observance and from which all others flow. Similarly, our Patriarch Abraham is the first of our forefathers from whom our faith descends to us and flows outward to the world. The Sifsei Chaim quoting the Tur notes that indeed each of our patriarchs is associated with one of the three major festivals, and Avraham Avinu is associated with Pesach. It therefore behooves us to study the character of both Avraham Avinu and of Pesach to understand the connection between the two.
Both Avraham Avinu and the holiday of Pesach are the paradigmatic symbols of emunah, faith. Rabbi Noach Chefetz discusses this concept in Chalon Lateivah. All our faith, writes Rabbi Chefetz stems from our experience of the exodus, a faith we verbalize constantly in our recitation of Shema. In that experience, our nation recognized Hashem as the Omnipotent, Omniscient Lord and Sovereign of the entire universe. To Him, there is no difference between the natural and supernatural, for all is naturally within His domain, whether in heaven or on earth. As we witnessed the many miracles Hashem performed for us as part of the exodus, complete faith in Hakadosh Boruch Hu became entrenched in our psychological, spiritual, and emotional DNA if not in our physical DNA. It was this total belief and faith that Hashem would redeem us that was the catalyst for the redemption. In fact, anyone who did not believe that Hashem would redeem us was killed during the Plague of Darkness and only those who believed, including the otherwise evil Datan and Aviram, survived.
Avraham Avinu lived in a world steeped in idolatry, continues Rabbi Chefetz, a world which resembled the future Mitzrayim in its belief that while there were gods who ruled in the heavens, they did not concern themselves with events or people on earth. Avraham brought that all encompassing belief in one God to earth and taught the wayfarers who benefitted from his hospitality to thank the God in Heaven who supplies the needs of those on earth. Similarly, Bnei Yisrael saw Hashem’s involvement in all things earthly as He directed nature itself to change to bring about the redemption of His chosen people, Avraham’s descendants. This belief in a God Who rules over both heaven and earth is the basis of monotheism.
According to Rabbi Tzvi Rothenberg in Moda Labinah, the dual process of relinquishing idolatry and embracing service to the Ribbono shel Olam was the mission of both Avraham Avinu and of Bnei Yisrael. How can we accurately characterize the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael and their immersion in idolatry and their subsequent return to embracing HaKadosh Baruch Hu?
The Tallelei Chaim tackles this question and introduces us to the role of matzo in the process. Pharaoh enslaved us through our intellect, writes Rav Chaim Hachalban. By severing our inner, emotional connection to HaKadosh Boruch Hu, it became easy to enslave our minds and our bodies. Someone whose spirit remains free, no matter what his physical circumstances may be, remains free. After all, “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage,” as long as my soul is free. Since the enslavement began with the spirit, redemption also had to come about through the spirit, through a reconnection of faith. It is in this regard that matzah plays such a pivotal role.
The entire purpose of the plagues was to teach Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and especially Bnei Yisrael that “I am God.” Eating the matzah, continues the Chalban, is the antidote for a lack of faith much as antibiotics are an antidote for physical disease. Through the matzah, you eat, chew and swallow faith.
Our journey into the connection between matzah and faith begins with the Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom. We can easily contrast chametz and matzah. Chametz, leaven, by definition, is puffed up dough symbolizing the puffed up ego. Matzah, on the other hand is low, representing the humble spirit. It is therefore the ideal vehicle through which to absorb humility and self-nullification to God’s will. It allows us to embrace our faith.
The theme of contrasting chametz/Mitzrayim with matzah/faith is developed more fully in Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Kluger’s book, My Sole Desire. Rabbi Kluger explains that the Egyptians’ idolatry was based in their desire to control their surroundings and the world. They worshipped the Nile because that was the source of their power and wealth. The redemption and exodus was to prove that no man has control, only God controls. Bnei Yisrael were immersed in the Egyptian ideology to the forty ninth level, a belief in man’s ability to control the world. They needed to be extricated from the most powerful empire on earth to prove to them that only God is in control. Hashem would restore their faith and set them free.
Rabbi Kluger then discusses the essential difference between chametz and matzah. With chametz, man takes the dough and personally changes it to rise and grow into the shape he wants it to achieve. Man controls the shape. Matzah, on the other hand, remains in the flat shape it started out with, retaining even the initial holes in the dough. The Egyptians wanted to shape every aspect of their lives. When they saw astrologically that the redeemer would be born, they defied “fate” by throwing all the male babies into that Nile. Obviously, they failed to control the situation. In contrast, the “philosophy” behind matzah is that we relinquish control and accept what is before us as God’s will, and whatever He desires will be the result.
Now we can understand that first command for the Pascal sacrifice, “Withdraw and take for yourselves sheep …” First, says Hashem, withdraw your hands from idol worship and then embrace Hashem with the act of slaughtering the very god of the Egyptians, a sheep. Trust in Hashem and let Him redeem you. Bnei Yisrael trusted Hashem so completely at that point that they quickly followed HaKadosh Baruch Hu into the unknown wilderness, making no provisions for themselves other than their faith in Hashem. They didn’t even wait to bake their bread properly, relying totally in Hashem’s ability to provide for them. Therefore one of the names for matzah is “the bread of emunah – the bread of faith.”
Just as Hashem gave Bnei Yisrael the gift of emunah at the time of the exodus, so too does He give us this gift every Seder night, the gift to experience true freedom. As our ancestors let Hashem take control so many millennia ago, so can we too let Hashem take control and stop our obsessive worrying and planning that keep us enslaved. We do our part, but Hashem controls the result. If the Seder table is not exactly as we wished, if we did not incorporate “spring cleaning” into our Pesach preparations, if our children are not acting as little angels, we can still enjoy our Pesach and our Seder by letting go of our desire for control, for Hashem is in charge of the final result. Eating matzah frees us from our expectations.
Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr in Ohr Gedalyahu adds another dimension to this theme. When Hashem skipped over our homes as He slew the Egyptian firstborn, He gave us the precious gift of faith. Hashem’s gift to us was instantaneous, at the stroke of midnight. We responded by returning that faith and following Him into the dessert with equal alacrity, not waiting for our dough to rise. We relinquished control completely to Hashem, as we should relinquish it throughout our lives, especially in the chaos of Pesach preparations. As Rabbi Pincus points out, when we wake up the morning after the Seder, after having eaten the matzah and given ourselves over completely to the Ribbono shel Olam, we should feel that the shackles that chained us to the worries and expectations of this life have been removed, and our trust and faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu has been fully restored.
Matzah is such an overriding theme of the Seder that we acknowledge it at the very beginning with, “Ho lachma anya – This is the bread of affliction,” and follow with inviting guests to our Seder. This seems hypocritical since our doors are probably closed at that moment and all invitations have already been extended. Rabbi Nebenzahl, citing the GR”A, explains that we are here repeating what our ancestors said in the desert, most notably that this year we are slaves and next year we will be free and in Israel. Or, as the Netivot Shalom writes, we are inviting anyone who may be spiritually hungry to join us in experiencing a Seder of freedom.
Perhaps the best explanation for beginning the Seder with “Ho lachma anya” is that it is the mission statement for the Seder experience. Let us become like the matzah, free ourselves from our egotistical expectations, and allow freedom to enter our souls as we renew our faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Let us now move on to discuss another aspect of how Pesach is associated with Avraham Avinu. Certainly we are aware that the angels came to Avraham to foretell the birth of Yitzchak on Pesach, for the Torah states that Avraham asked that Matzah cakes be baked for the visitors. But beyond that detail, we have the character of Avraham who is most closely associated with the trait of chesed, loving kindness, of all our patriarchs, especially in his constant desire to accommodate travelers. The holiday of Pesach is the quintessential celebration of chesed, for Hashem’s redeeming us from Egypt and making us His nation was a pure act of chesed, and as such should awaken in us a tremendous love of Hashem, writes the Sefas Emes.
Rabbi Roberts in Timeless Seasons notes that Bnei Yisrael, in a sense of unity to each other, practiced a tremendous amount of chesed throughout their enslavement. When Pharaoh called for workers to build his storehouses, all of Bnei Yisrael went out except for the Tribe of Levi who continued in their holy studies. Later, Pharaoh decreed that only those who worked would be receiving food rations. The Levites would have starved, except that the other tribes felt responsible to support them and shared their food with their brothers. As Mrs. Smiles noted, the first kollel was established in Mitzrayim as Bnei Yisrael understood the need to support their brothers in learning and extend chesed to them.
The theme of chesed is further acknowledged in the two names of the holiday. While we call it Pesach to acknowledge God’s act of loving kindness to us, throughout the Torah Hashem calls the holiday Chag HaMatzot to acknowledge our chesed to Him through our faith in running after Him, notes the Netivot Shalom.
Hashem loved Avraham for many of his character traits, but, as Rabbi Roberts writes, the Torah records that Hashem loves Avraham most deeply because he will teach his children after him to love charity and justice. In other words, that Avraham himself was righteous was important, but not as important as instilling these traits and love of God into his children. Rabbi Leff now reminds us that the purpose of the Seder is to teach our children all about Hashem and what He did for us when He took us out of Egypt. The purpose of the Seder is to transmit this legacy to our children so that they will love it and appreciate it, even if we must save discussing all our Torah thoughts for another time.
This Pesach let us try to transform ourselves into the matzah model. Let us relinquish our egos and let Hashem take control, let us resolve to actively practice chesed not just on Pesach but all year, and let us teach our children the values Jews have held dear throughout our history so that we may soon be redeemed and shine our light upon the nations.