No other holiday is as food-related as Passover. We turn the house upside down and scour out the cupboards, intent on expelling every last crumb of forbidden food even as we hurry to stock the pantry with permissible equivalents. At no other time of the year do we scan ingredient listings so carefully or hover over our kitchens so protectively. We do strange things with ordinary food -- roast eggs, dip vegetables in salt water, eat horseradish until the tears run down our faces -- and fill our kitchens with strange new food, like potato starch and coconut macaroons. But the centerpiece of the kosher-for-Passover diet is matzah: plain unleavened bread.
The Torah refers to matzah as lechem oni, which can be translated as "bread of poverty." Matzah contains a minimum number of ingredients (flour and water) and is baked in a minimum amount of time (18 minutes). It hovers on the edge of digestibility. No one has ever waxed poetic about The Ultimate Piece of Matzah that he savored in a small French cafe. Matzah is matzah; it all tastes the same.
Although we do celebrate Passover with an elaborate festive meal, the Torah does not explicitly tell us to partake of delicacies on Seder night. Rather, it is matzah that we are instructed to eat to celebrate our miraculous redemption from slavery. This seems strange. Wouldn't something more refined -- perhaps moist chocolate cake -- be more appropriate to indicate our status as free people? Why must we eat poor man's bread on the very day that we were rescued from centuries of degradation?
The Maharal explains that the idea of poverty is fundamentally related to the concept of freedom and redemption. Matzah is the barest essence of food. It does not disguise itself with any additives; no extra time or ingredients are added to make it tastier or more attractive in any way. An impoverished person finds himself in a similar situation. His existence is pared down to its most essential ingredients: his soul and his body. Stripped of material goods, he owns only himself. He cannot disguise his essence, because it is all that he is.
We become worthy of redemption when we peel away all elements that are superfluous to our essence.
Obviously, a poor person is not literally free at all, since he must depend on others for his most basic needs. Nevertheless, since he cannot identify himself with anything material, he is forced to confront the world as an independent being. The Maharal explains that this is the fundamental quality of the Exodus and of redemption in general. Freedom means severing all connection and attachment to external forces. We become worthy of redemption when we peel away all elements that are superfluous to our essence. Matzah has no pretense; it contains nothing besides itself.
We eat this bread of poverty on Seder night to remind us that we are what we eat. On the night of our redemption from Egypt, we partake of the barest essence of bread in order to identify with the very foundation of our being.
The whole point of matzah is that it's impossible to have a 15-minute monologue about its subtle flavors and delicate texture. We don't eat matzah as a gastronomical indulgence; we eat it to connect to our innermost essence, which is where our true freedom lies. Eating matzah reminds us that our core self stands independent from all the enriched ingredients of our lives. Our truest identity is not connected to the wealth we have accumulated, our social status, our homes, or any other artificial additives. Real freedom tastes like matzah.
Although the world we live in proclaims itself to be liberated, Judaism has celebrated a different kind of liberty for thousands of years. The freedom of Passover is the freedom of knowing who we truly are -- a liberty from false perceptions of self -- and this is a freedom we are all hungry for.