Why is matzah so basic to the celebration of Passover? Why is Passover called Chag HaMatzos, "the Holiday of Matzos" by the Torah? Why is this simple food a foundation of Jewish experience and ideology? Why has matzah come to symbolize human freedom?
Matzah has many aspects. It is the "bread of affliction," poor man's bread, eaten by slaves. It is also the bread of liberation and freedom. Let's attempt to plumb its many meanings.
Bread is the staff of life, but matzah is the most basic bread, the simplest food made by man. Matzah involves the amalgamation of the three basic elements that define civilized man: grain, water and fire. No external element beyond flour and water is permitted to define or influence its form. Matzah is made of flour and cold water -- nothing more. If the mixture of flour and water was allowed to stand for more than 18 minutes, the process of fermentation has already begun to take place. Yeast bacteria, found in the air, invade the dough, multiply by the millions and cause fermentation. The yeast microorganisms are an uninvited invading army, intruding on the flour and water mixture, helping themselves to a delicious meal of sugar molecules. As the yeast microorganisms multiply by the billions, they release the carbon dioxide gas that sours the dough, causing it to rise and become airy and light.
The intervention of this outside force is a symbolic expression of the intrusion of outside forces on man; forces that sway people from their chosen determined path and entice them to sin, compromising human independence, autonomy and choice. Yeast microorganisms begin their work independent of human will, independent of the person who combined the flour and water which constitutes the dough mix. Fermentation, i.e. chametz, represents these negative forces. It represents the inclination to evil, the urge to sin, the influence of alien ideas, pleasures and forces. It is the uninvited voice that sways us to ignore the presence and power of evil, until it is too late.
What is the difference between chametz (leaven) and matzah? Time. Nothing else. The ingredients are the same. By definition, dough made of flour and water that stands for more than 18 minutes before it is fully baked becomes chametz, leaven. Because matzah is bread that is not leavened, it represents man in control of his passions -- exercising his independent, disciplined will, uninfluenced by external forces. Matzah is the opposite of chametz.
To paraphrase Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, one of the giants of Jewish thought in our generation, fermentation demonstrates cause and effect in the world of nature. When we witness nature at work -- apparently doing things by itself, without any outside intervention -- we see how natural processes have the effect of concealing the Hand of God.
Matzos are baked quickly, in an effort to overcome the influences and limitations of time. We bake flat, crisp matzah in order to reenact the Exodus, when the Children of Israel fled Egypt in a hurry, as the Torah says: "You shall eat matzot during seven days…bread of suffering, for you departed Egypt in great haste." This mitzvah teaches that God's control of nature and history is above and beyond the constraints and limitations of time. God does not require cause and effect. He does not need time in order to accomplish His goals. On Passover, we too must emulate God and become creative spiritually by hurrying time, by acting with zeal and speed, by living life beyond time, in partnership with God who is above time and is timeless. We respond to God's Will by acting in defiance of nature, by breaking the limits imposed by time and nature.
The hasty departure of the Jews from Egypt was due to the Plague of the Deaths of Firstborn Egyptians, which convinced Pharaoh that if he did not respond to God's pressures without an additional moment's delay, all of Egypt faced immediate collapse and destruction. For Egypt to survive, Israel must leave immediately.
And for Israel to survive, Israel had to flee immediately. God forced Pharaoh's hand. He did this to teach Pharaoh and all of mankind that behind the normal course of events, which can be described as the workings of cause and effect, God's Hand compels the forces of history and nature to conform to His agenda. As the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loewe ben Bezalel, a seminal figure in Jewish thought) explains, it was necessary that mankind become aware of the fact that the Exodus was the direct result of the Will and intervention of God.
What was the hurry? Why, after 210 years of slavery, did God finally decide to press the Egyptians to eject the Jews with speed and force? The Sages teach that the Jews had reached the 49th degree of decadence. As soon as they would enter the 50th degree, a development that was imminent, they would have reached the point of no return and would be beyond redemption. Once they would succumb to the infamous immorality, materialism, decadence and paganism of the Egyptians, their Abrahamic origins would become unrecognizable and they would sink into the morass of Egyptian society and disappear.
The Sages explain that each additional degree of decadence involved a geometric progression, something like the Richter scale where each number is ten times as great as the previous number. So long as Israel had not passed the 50th degree of impurity, their Abrahamic origins were still recognizable, though sullied. The Sages teach that during their 210 years of enslavement, the "Israelites, to their credit, had not changed their names, their culture, their language or their dress," clearly indicating that despite unremitting pressures and taunts they remained Jews in every way. The Hebrew names of the Jews as reported by the Bible demonstrate that they had continuously worshipped the true God of Israel and remained true to their heritage.
But after 210 years they were close to losing this heritage. They had to overcome the pressures of time by becoming a timeless, eternal people. This necessitated Divine intervention; God snatched His People from the jaws of history, by liberating them in such a way as to telescope time. Their miraculous liberation therefore defied the laws of nature, time and history.
Matzah is the only food whose manufacture demands that it be created without time. The prohibition of leaven also teaches us that nature does not operate independently but is controlled by God.
The Maharal explains that it is for this reason that they were commanded to eat matzah when they observed the Passover of their liberation and for every subsequent Passover throughout all eternity. Matzah is the only food whose manufacture demands that it be created without time -- beyond time as quickly as possible. The prohibition of leaven also teaches us that nature does not operate independently but is controlled by God. Nature is the Will of God concealed in the natural world.
Where applied to the human being himself, the Sages teach that the "puffed up" nature of chametz symbolizes the character trait of arrogance and conceit. The flat, unleavened matzah represents total humility. Humility is the beginning of liberation and the foundation of spiritual growth. Only a person who can acknowledge his shortcomings and submit to a higher wisdom can free himself from his own limitations. When we eat matzah, we internalize the quality of humility as the essence of faith. By not eating chametz, we rid ourselves of arrogance and self-centeredness.
In a symbolic sense, the Children of Israel had become "fermented" -- to the point where they had almost become chametz. God saved Israel from becoming chametz, which would have spelled Israel's destruction. It was the redeeming Hand of God which guaranteed that Israel would remain "matzah," the essence of humility, for all time to come.
For the above reasons, the words "mitzvah" and "matzah" are analogous. Our Sages teach, "mitzvah she'haba'ah leyadcha al tachmitzena, when a mitzvah comes your way, do not allow it to ferment" i.e. when the opportunity to do a mitzvah arises, do it quickly. This teaching applies the urgency of baking Passover matzah with alacrity to all mitzvot. The Jew is expected to conquer time, to live beyond time, to associate his life with God, Who is timeless and eternal. The Jew never wastes time; the present is now -- this is why it is so precious. The Jew employs time to bend this time-bound world to the goals of eternity. This is done by making time a precious commodity -- by filling it with Torah, mitzvot and chessed (goodness).