Matzah – The Bread of Freedom and of Poverty

Perhaps the most striking feature of the festival of Pesach is that of the unleavened bread known as matzo.  Matzo plays a particularly prominent role in Seder night where there is a Torah obligation to eat a kezayis of matzo. 
However, the Maharal notes that there seems to be a contradiction as to what exactly the matzo represents.  We begin the Haggadah by raising the matzos and stating: “This is the poor man’s bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt..”  This declaration focuses on the matzo as symbolic of the poverty that the Jewish people endured during their slavery in Egypt.  Much later in the Hagaddah we again raise up the matzo, however, on this occasion we focus on the fact that we ate matzo as we escaped from Mitzrayim.  In this vein, matzo is said to represent the freedom of escaping Mitzrayim.  The Maharal asks that matzo seems to represent two, separate, and perhaps even contradictory concepts; poverty and freedom.  How do we understand this seeming contradiction?[1]
In order to answer this question, we must first understand the concepts of slavery and freedom and then examine how matzo relates to them.  The Maharal explains that a person is enslaved, in an existential sense, when he is attached to things that are external to his essence.  He needs those things to give him a complete sense of identity and when he lacks them he feels deficient.  Moreover, he becomes a slave to them in that they define certain aspects of how he lives his life. 
An obvious example is someone who has an addiction to alcohol or drugs.  His need for a ‘fix’ drives his life, and determines much about how he lives his lifestyle.  A less obvious, but, more common example, is when a person is ‘enslaved’ to his material possessions.  His attachment to them may often adversely determine his life decisions.  For example, years before the Holocaust took place, the German Jews recognized the threat from the Nazi regime.  As a result, many of the less wealthy Jews decided to escape and leave their property behind.  However, the more affluent Jews found it far more difficult to leave, because of the wealth that they had accumulated in Germany.  Tragically, many of these Jews stayed in Germany with dire consequences.  These peoples’ wealth determined that they made a terrible mistake.  In contrast, a free person is one who recognizes that his true essence is his soul, accordingly, he is in no danger of becoming bound by his possessions.  He views them as a means to a greater end, but he never sees them as being part of his being.[2]
The Maharal explains how matzo relates to these concepts.  Matzo is the combination of water and flour in its most basic form.  If the dough is left to rise then it becomes chametz, which represents an addition to the pure essence of the matzo.  In this sense, matzo is symbolic of the concept of freedom; that is, being free of anything external to one’s essence.  Chametz, in contrast, is created when the yeast rises, and adds to the raw combination of water and flour.  In this way, chametz represents additions to one’s pure essence. 
With this understanding we can now explain how matzo can represent both freedom and poverty.  A person who grows up with a high standard of living will almost certainly become so used to this standard that it will be extremely difficult for him to break away from it – in a certain sense he is meshubad to it.  For example, a woman who grew up with an en suite bathroom all to herself, found it very difficult to adjust to sharing a bathroom when she got married.  In contrast, one who begins with very little external baggage (in the form of material possessions) finds it far easier to avoid becoming meshubad (enslaved) to things that are external to himself. 
In this sense, poverty is highly conducive to the form of freedom that the Maharal describes.  The poor person never accustomed himself to owning numerous possessions, thus he is not bound by them.  This explains how matzo can represent both poverty and freedom.  Poverty is conducive to freedom, because the poor person is not meshubad to the physical world and material possessions.  Accordingly, the ‘poor man’s bread’ that the Jews ate in Mitzrayim represented the fact that they had no possessions that were external to their essence.  Because they had nothing, it was far easier for them to attain the freedom of identifying themselves by their pure essence alone. 
One may ask, why was it so important for the Jewish people to attain this level of freedom at this time in particular?  The answer is that Yetsias Mitzrayim was the birth of the Jewish nation as the ‘Am HaShem’, a process that would lead to the receiving of the Torah.  It was essential that at this time, they would be free of any external ‘baggage’ contaminating their true essence.  The very fact that they were so poor during their tenure as slaves in Mitzrayim facilitated their ability to begin their new role as the Am HaShem.
On Pesach, and on Seder night in particular, we try to recapture this sense of freedom that our ancestors attained when they left Mitzrayim.  We eat matzo as a symbolic reminder of the need to strip ourselves of things that are external to us and to find our pure essence.[3]   Of course, it is insufficient to merely perform the rituals without trying to internalize their messages.
Pesach is a time to examine our level of freedom; to assess how meshubad we are to things that are external to us; and to remind ourselves of our true essence – our souls and to remember that our spiritual accomplishments are the only things of true value.

Notes and Sources

[1] Maharal, Haggadah Shel Pesach, Divrei Negidim, p.51.
[2] Heard from Rav Aaron Lopiansky shlita.
[3] There are other aspects to the Seder night that allude to this concept of freedom.  The Maharal writes further that the minhag to wear a kittel# on Seder night is based on this idea.  The kittel is a plain white robe, representing the pure essence without anything external additions.  Similarly, one cannot fulfill the mitzvo of matzo by eating matzo ashira (matzo that has additional ingredients) – this is also because it represents additions to one’s pure essence (heard from Rav Aaron Lopiansky shlita).

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