At the beginning of the Passover Seder we hold up the matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” During our time in Egypt we were so rushed and pressed by the Egyptians, there was no time to enjoy a meal. The pressure of time forced us to get the calories into our bloodstream as quickly as possible and get back to work. The Egyptian taskmasters would have opted for IVs if they had the technology. So matzah represents our slavery.
But later in the Seder, we hold up the matzah another time and ask, “Why matzah? Because God took us out of Egypt so quickly that we didn’t have time to let the dough rise.” That means matzah represents freedom!
Which one is it: slavery or freedom? How can one thing symbolize two opposite concepts?
Imagine being in Egypt the night right before the exodus took place. After hundreds of years of slavery, of being bossed around, we finally get to be free people! To make our own decisions, shape our own destiny, use our time the way WE want to! Pharaoh opens the gates and we exuberantly run out of Egypt, thinking, “Ahh, now’s my chance to get a Jacuzzi, a smorgasbord at the local deli, or take that long nap that I’ve been waiting 210 years for.”
But before we know it, God arranges for us to be rushed out of Egypt so quickly that we grab our food and supplies and run to our first resting stop in the desert, the city of Sukkoth.
“The Egyptians were also urging the people to hurry and leave the land... the people took their dough before it could rise” (Exodus 12:33-34).
And when we finally stop and open our luggage, what do we find? Matzah! No dough to make bagels, pizza, focaccia, not even a lousy pancake! We’ve been liberated from Egypt but we’re still not free! Now we’re stuck having to follow God’s directions.
The Torah emphasizes this anomaly when God tells us “The Jewish people are my servants because I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:55). It sounds like we just changed taskmasters! Before it was Pharaoh making us build cities, and now it’s God making us pray, give charity, keep Shabbat, honor our parents, etc.
Did we really become free on Passover, or just exchange whom we’re serving?
The answer is: limits engender freedoms. If you want to achieve anything in life, you need to make choices and limit other options, implement those choices and not just dream about success, and stick with your goals even when things get tough. Olympic marathon hopefuls have to put a lot of limits on themselves — training, diet, hours daily on the track, letting their lives be controlled by a demanding coach. It’s those very limits that allow them to really achieve their goal of getting the gold. They are a lot more free than the others who may have that same potential, but watch the Olympics from their couch at home wistfully saying, “Maybe one day…”
Freedom is not hours of mindless websurfing, indulging in a smorgasbord, or hanging out on the beaches of Hawaii. That’s serving your body instead of serving your higher self, your aspirations for greatness. Animals aren’t free; they’re stuck being animals, living according to their instincts. Fashion divas aren’t free; they’re serving popularity and public image. Party animals aren’t free; they constantly need the next thing to keep the high going.
As Bob Dylan so eloquently wrote, “You gotta serve somebody.” And as Rabbi Noah Weinberg defined, “Freedom is being able to pursue what you really want to do (your higher goals), not what you feel like doing (your momentary impulses).”
So matzah represents both freedom and slavery, because they’re not opposites. “Enslaving” yourself, pushing yourself and committing yourself to a higher purpose in life is challenging, but it’s the only way to taste that real freedom of breaking your own barriers and reaching greatness.
As we eat the matzah on Passover night, let’s remember that we want to leave our personal Egypt, get to our own Mount Sinai experience and bring out our full potential. Striving for real meaning and growth in life is hard. And that’s what makes it so delicious when you get there.