Pesach is known as חג המצות, the festival of matzos. It is actually the name Hashem uses when He refers to this festival. But, why does Hashem specifically single out matzah instead of the korban pesach, which in many ways is more central to the chag?
The Many Faces of Matzah
Matzah is called “לחם עני” in the Torah.1 Since the Torah is written without vowels, there can be several interpretations:
- In the Torah it is written as ani (עני)- the word for “poor.” When interpreted using the written form of the word the phrase means “poor man’s bread.” This in turn has three connotations: 1) matzah’s meager ingredient list of flour and water; 2) the fact the matzah is broken in half in the manner of a poor individual who receives a loaf of bread and saves half of it for the future; and 3) breaking the matzah also symbolizes spiritual poverty and a lack of spiritual completeness.2
- Though it is written ani, the tradition is to vocalize it as oni (עֹנִי), which means oppression, affliction, or mourning. According to Rashi, matzah is the “bread that brings to mind the affliction [the Jewish people] suffered in Egypt.”3
- The expression lechem oni means “bread over which many matters are recited” based on the word “onin” (עוֹנִין) which means “to recite.”4
- Finally, “onin” can also mean “to answer.” In this case, matzah is “bread over which one answers many matters.”5
All of these themes are brought together at the Pesach Sedar.6 We begin the recitation of magid with “Ha lachma anya,” thus highlighting matzah’s role as the bread of affliction over which we will recite (oni) the Hagadah and answer (onin) the fir kashos, the four questions. We simultaneously proclaim that the matzah is the bread of the poor (ani), by inviting the poor to join us in our celebration.
Immediately prior to magid, we break the middle matzah, which resembles a poor person who saves part of his bread for later. On a spiritual level, it reminds us that we don’t have the power to perfect all of our deficiencies through our actions alone. We can only do so with Hashem’s Rachamim and Assistance. And to receive this, we need to cry out to Hashem.3
Finding Your “I”
Hidden behind the multidimensional nature of matzah is a deep yesod…
The word עני, is also related to the word אני, “I.” This is who I am without all the additives… without the masks, walls, blind spots and sink holes that prevent me from being truly me and expressing my portion of Divine light into the world.
These barriers are the spiritual chametz we must rid ourselves of. In fact the Rambam describes the days leading up to Pesach– when we are occupied with ridding ourselves of all traces of chametz– as both an external and internal process:7
It is a positive commandment from the Torah to destroy chametz before the time it becomes forbidden to be eaten… What is the destruction to which the Torah refers? To nullify chametz within his heart and to consider it as dust, and to resolve within his heart that he possesses no chametz at all.
Physically cleaning our homes and any other property is a rigorous process that requires significant effort. The internal, spiritual version of this process is no different. The Rambam further elobrates:
According to the Sages’ decree, [the mitzvah to destroy chametz involves] searching for chametz in hidden places and in any holes, seeking it and removing it from all of one’s domain.
Similarly, according to the Sages’ decree, we must search [with the intent to] destroy chametz by candlelight, at night…
The days leading up to Pesach are a time for cheshbon hanefesh, spiritual accounting. We are required to actively search for the chametz in the inner recesses of our hearts, and we must do so specifically “at night,” those places where our inner light is blocked, and where Hashem’s Presence and Providence are hidden from us.
Moreover, we must do so with the “intent to destroy it by candlelight.” This hints to the Divine light of our own souls, since every Jewish soul is compared to a candle, as it says, “The soul of man is G d’s candle.”8
The festival of Pesach is actually not a time to work on spiritual change. It’s a time to connect to who we really are. It’s a time to recognize that there areas inside of us where we are blocking out the light of Hashem’s Presence, as it says:
!עַד־אָ֓נָה תַּסְתִּ֖יר אֶת־פָּנֶ֣יךָ? מִמֶּֽנִּי
Until when will You [Hashem] hide Your Face?
[It’s] from me! 9
However, all of the above is just the preparation. The purpose of Pesach is to strengthen our emunah in the fact that deep spiritual and emotional change is possible. With Hashem’s help, we can rise from the depths of the pit, and break free from the narrow straights of our personal golus.
When Pesach arrives, we celebrate it with the emunah that we have done all that we could. Since we were required to mentally nullify the chametz within our hearts, even if there remain areas that we have overlooked or chametz that we did not see, we must act as if we possess no chametz at all.
Matzah the Bread of Emunah
The Zohar calls matzah the “Bread of Emunah.” Emunah as a concept is something ephemeral. It is beyond the nature of this world and beyond all understanding. Yet, on Sedar Night our emunah is transformed into a palpable experience.
Chazal teach that in each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt.10 This is brought in the text of the Haggadah:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In every generation, a person is obligated
to see himself as if he left Mitzrayim
We know that the Egyptian exile is the root of all the future exiles that the Jewish people, as nation, have experienced.11
And, it sits at the root of our personal exile, as well. The Baal HaTanya explains that the main aspect of galus in these days is on a personal level. Galus hanefesh (exile of the soul) happens whenever and where ever our inner Divine essence is in confinement and hidden from us. When we lack a connection to the Divine within us, we are no different to the animals that fill the world.
Another translation of חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ, is that a person is obligated to see עַצְמוֹ, literally “his essence.” When we are connected to ourselves in emes, then many questions suddenly have answers, and things start to make sense. Even when they don’t make sense, there is peace and comfort in knowing that there is a Loving Creator behind the scenes Who is guiding the world, down to the smallest detail.
According to Chazal, each person has two images: one of this world and one in the heavenly realms. The image of this world reflects our thoughts and actions. How have we approached our imperfections and the fulfillment of our spiritual tafkid (role) in the world. Our heavenly image represents our ideal selves, who we are if we reach our potential.
Our goal in this world is to get ourselves “down here” to match the image “up there.”
On Sedar Night, Chazal may in fact be hinting to us that we are required to see ourselves as if we’ve already left our personal Mitzrayim, our exile of the soul…
When we eat Matzah on this night, our bodies may be receiving a mixture of baked flour and water, but what we really ingest is emunah. We have the ability to reconnect to the inner light of our souls… a place of clarity and peace… a place where there are no questions, no doubts, no uncertainty, no confusion.
According to the Baal Shem Tov, where ever a person’s thoughts are, that is where he truly is. What we choose to focus on becomes our reality.
We have the opportunity, year after year, on Sedar Night to mentally visualize getting out of galus nafshi and actualizing our potential. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that power of imagination should be harnessed to focus on and visualizing ourselves achieving our spiritual and emotional development goals. The greater the detail, the better.
To do this on Sedar night, try to build a mental picture of yourself– especially when eating matzah. Make this picture as vivid as possible. What would you look like if all your internal struggles and blocks were suddenly lifted… if all the distressful emotions disappeared… if you were using your talents, skills, personality and experiences in life to serve Hashem and bring others closer to Him… if you were fully at peace with your spouses, children, parents, friends, neighbors, and peers?
This should be connected with an inner yearning to break free and a silent crying out to Hashem for mercy and Divine assistance. We must try to believe with all of our might that we can with Hashem’s help fulfill all of our deficiencies and reach our potential no matter how far away we may be.10
The Jewish nation had to go into golus in order to receive the rechush gadol, the “big treasure” that Hashem promised to Avraham Avinu (which the Midrash explains is the Torah). So too, every experience of personal affliction, distress, confusion, and narrowness is there to open the door to an outpouring of spiritual knowledge, development, and awareness, as well as physical blessing.
But without emunah and its expression in tefillah, there is no vessel to hold all of this enlightenment and abundance.
Pesach is a chag of emunah… we can choose to believe that change is truly possible… that Hashem listens to our tefillos… that even if we are poor in mitzvos, He will give us the strength… clarity… and determination to do teshuva.
We can choose to believe in ourselves and our inherent worth. We can choose to believe that we can get out of the darkest, most stubborn parts of ourselves even if we are very far from that place at the moment. And, we can choose to to believe that our present circumstances in life are only there in order to help us remember our Creator and go down the path that is meant for us.
A Joyous and Kosher Pesach!
- Devarim 16:3
- Likutei Halakhos, Choshen Mishpat, Laws of an Agent Collecting Debts and Authorization, Chapter 3:31
- Rashi Devarim 16:3
- Pesachim 36a
- Likutei Halakhos, Orach Chaim, Laws of Passover 2:2:1
- What is Lechem Oni?
- Mishnah Torah, Halachos Chametz U’Matzah 2
- Mishlei 20:27
- Tehillim 13:2
- Pesachim 116b
- Bereshis Rabbah 16:4