March 29, 2007
Chametz and matzah symbolize internal slavery struggle
There are two ways to describe the difference between chametz and matzah. One is to say it is simply a matter of a leavening mechanism, that which makes the flour and water rise. Another interpretation is that the difference lies in just one second.
From the moment the water hits the flour while preparing the dough to bake matzah, we have 18 minutes to get the continuously kneaded dough into the oven. Within 17 minutes and 59 seconds or even 18 minutes, the matzah is fit for Pesach. Take 18 minutes and one second, and the matzah is chametz and can't be consumed on Pesach.
One second that defines the status, functionality and purpose of the matzah renders whether it will make it to our seder table or not. One second and nothing is the same.
Each of us struggles between our own internal slavery and freedom, and like the timing of the matzah, we can also pinpoint our internal leavening agents and "one-second" segments.
The Chasidic masters interpret and re-interpret the multiple facets of the symbolism of chametz and matzah -- slavery and freedom. As reading a verse from the Torah, they will rotate these concepts skewered on the axis of our lives and ask us to take yet another closer look at these physical and historic manifestations as internal processes.
For the Ba'al Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of the Chasidic movement and his immediate disciples, chametz is understood to represent anger, pride and arrogance, to mention but a few. Our internal leavening agents. Mitzrayim (Egypt) is not only a geographic location but also a fallen state of consciousness. It is a cluttering of vision and mind.
Mitzrayim, which literally translates as "narrow-waters," are all those places where we feel locked in and restricted. Those moments in our lives in which there is only one way to respond, only one kind of doll or computer game that will make our children happy, only one outcome to what our lives could/should look like.
There is a teaching that explains that when reading the verses of the Torah in Sh'mot (the Book of Exodus), we are exposed to a reality so that we identify with the suffering and hard labor that our ancestors endured. But, there is an opposite reading of the story of our slavery. This story is one of a people who lived in a civilization on the cusp of a desert.
They had food and water and shelter. They had a life that they were familiar with, knowing what was expected of them and what they were to do when they awoke in the morning. In this reading, our ancestors were locked into the slavery of security.
And we, too, in so many ways, walk in their footsteps seeking to be secure and by doing so shortchange the magnitude of our lives. For some this mitzrayim comes in the form of a nine-to-five job.
Some will experience this enslavement when they submit the most unique and promising proposal to an established foundation, only to be told that it doesn't meet the criteria. This, too, is a potential manifestation of slavery.
We are enslaved to our comforts, enslaved to the familiar, enslaved to that which doesn't challenge us to be more tomorrow than who we were today. It is an enslavement which draws us to go over in our minds time and again thoughts that don't push us out of our comfort zone.
Our 21st century slavery has camouflaged itself in the guise of responsibility, commitment, stability. At times, it reveals itself as a Purim teaching -- in the absence of God's name in the book of Esther, God is present in every column of the scroll.
Our spiritual, emotional and intellectual enslavement is so hidden that it dictates so many moments of our day. Adam, Freud and Jung were honest in their evaluation of our reality. So much concealed from our naked eye.
For many years, I believed that we lived on an axle defined by fear and freedom. It is our fear that maintains our homeostasis in Mitzrayim/Egypt/slavery. God recognizes this danger, acknowledging "pen shavu Mitzrayima" -- lest they desire to return to Egypt:
"And it came to pass, when Par'o had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of P'lishtim, although that was near; for God said, lest the people repent when they see war and they return to Mitzrayim" (Sh'mot / Exodus 13, 17).The danger, the war as depicted in the verse, is a threat that is continuously lurking, breathing down on our necks, beckoning us to return to that which is familiar, that which we call home.
The desert and the ocean -- two intertwined symbols of the unknown -- are indeed justifiably fear-evoking and stand between each and every one of us and our own true promised land, the true manifestation of our uniqueness and greatness. I therefore had modified my two-dimensional paradigm of 'from fear to freedom.'
Based on the poetry of my teacher, Collete Aboulquer-Moscout, I have inserted a third dimension to the equation. A dimension that adds depth to our lives.
The axle that we vacillate on is now defined by the extremes of fear and trust. The fear we've touched upon. The trust reveals our trust in ourselves to overcome the obstacles of our journey. Our trust that we are able and capable of embracing change, the unknown and foreign with grace. The trust in our environment, family and community to support us and stand by our side as we shift into our new being. The trust that God, or that higher power that you draw from your internal strength, will never forsake us.
We evolve from fear through trust leading to freedom. If only for this one week of the year, let us bless each other with the blessing of health and freedom.
Reb Mimi Feigelson is the mashpia ruchanit and lecturer of rabbinics at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University.