What is the name of the wonderful holiday are we passing through right now?
You probably answered – Pesach, which is right, however there are actually a number of names for our great holiday. The Torah exclusively refers to it as ‘the festival of matsos’ – (which is also how it is called in our prayers and blessings). Another name we refer to it as (such as in the Amidah/silent prayer) is the time of our freedom. Lastly, Pesach is sometimes referred to as the holiday of the spring. Let’s take a moment to note something about the significance of each name:
Pesach: Rashi brings two interpretations of the word in his commentary on the Torah. First he brings proof to define the word according to the common interpretation – to skip (in that Hashem skipped over the houses of the Jews during the smiting of the firstborn).
However the word Pesach is a most unusual term for skipping, or ‘passing over’, and so he brings the interpretation of Onkelos’ great Aramaic interpretation, (the first recorded commentary, recorded roughly two millennia ago, and which, according to our tradition was given at Mount Sinai in tandem with the Hebrew. For many centuries the Torah reading consisted of one person reading the original Hebrew, and another reading after each verse in the Aramaic interpretation. (Today most printings of the Chumash place it in smaller type alongside the Hebrew The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), brings sources from the Torah and Talmud to show that the duty to read the parsha and go through the Torah includes reading Onkelos’ tradition as well, for it explains and reveals much of our tradition as to the written text.)
Onkelos translates Pesach as love or mercy. In other words the choice of the word Pesach holds a double meaning, namely that outwardly there was a skipping over the houses of the Jews, and inwardly our Father in Heaven was expressing His love and mercy on His suffering and wayward children. This understanding of the word Pesach opens up for us now a whole new appreciation for what we are celebrating and trying to reconnect to on our holy festival, and that is to see how all the events that we recount in the retelling our history are like reading a love letter to reminisce the kindness Hashem showed us in our youth, and to rekindle that flame within us to recommit to our ‘marriage’ to G-d and to His Mitzvos. The last step in the seder reveals this, for it is called ‘nirtsah’ meaning to find favour. In other words, from the very outset of the night we have our eyes on our goal of becoming beloved to our Beloved, and we sing praises and tell stories and share feelings to enhance the eternal romance.
Freedom is an appropriate term for Pesach for many reasons, the most obvious being that we were slaves and Hashem freed us. On a more internal level, which we can relate to more in our own lives, is the freedom we attained via our transition of being slaves/servants to man/society/Pharoah, to being slaves/servants to Hashem. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (19th Century Germany –very instrumental in protecting traditional Judaism and bringing to a very revolutionary generation) remarks that a language reflects the soul of a nation; in Hebrew the word for master is adon (a name of G-d), which means to support – as opposed to German the word Herr means to dominate. This reveals the role between leaders and the nation in Judaism, namely, that the position and power of the leader is solely to serve the people. (We see this a few times in Chumash, such as at the sin of the Golden Calf when Hashem tells Moshe to descend from his position for now that his nation has dropped, he is no longer deserving of his high level). Numerous times in the Talmud, and in our history great people have refused to take the helm, for they knew that proper leadership equaled being a public servant. One who works for Pharoah and other human bosses is merely selling himself to fulfilling the aims of another. On the other hand, when Hashem asks us to serve Him, by definition it cannot be for His sake – for G-d is categorically without lack, and gains nothing from His Creation – rather it can only be for our own benefit (like an altruistic parent/teacher who gives us tasks and requests for the sake of the child). Therefore if Hashem gave us Judaism for the good of us Jews, the goal of Judaism must be solely dedicated to our personal fulfillment.
Similarly the word religion comes from the Latin ‘religare’, meaning to bind, whereas Judaism looks at itself as a path to freedom (as seen in the verse ‘and (Moses) carve these commandments on the tablets’ to which our sages remark ‘carve is the same word as freedom’ – meaning through these mitzvos you can become truly free).
The reason, as my mom can explain to you is that there are two understandings of freedom: freedom from and freedom to. The first means a simple liberation, no longer having a taskmaster on your back, or a restriction on Jews entering, or having to take summer school because they won’t look at your resume without that credit, or any other external hindrance which stops you from fulfilling your desires.
Freedom to is more subtle. It refers to personal limitations we all have to achieve our potential. One with more money is more free to order what he wants, so too a musician with more skill is more free to play as he likes as opposed to the undisciplined rookie who bangs away at the keys and is incapable of producing anything of quality. The same is true in the world character – one who has never worked on improving oneself will not have the freedom to control his thought and emotions as he pleases, but will be ‘enslaved’ by his natural instincts and programs. Much like an animal whose instincts and natures can be known to the point where its behaviours and responses can be predicted like a robot’s, so too, despite our being more complex and subtle we are not so different, and only if we challenge ourselves and work on our ‘spiritual muscles’ and be the leaders of our own character maturation can we realize our divinely human potential.
Pesach is also called The Holiday of Spring since that is when it occurs. The fact the Torah specifically refers to it as such, is of quite significance though, for the fact that Pesach must fall in the spring is the source for our system of making leap months, in order that our lunar calendar does not keep shifting 11 days back every year (as the Muslim calendar, whereby their holidays such as Ramadan can fall in the winter some years and in the summer <much to their chagrin> on others.) – (Nonetheless North American’s always complain that Pesach is early or late this year.)
The term “The Festival of Matzos” used in the Torah shows us that matza is not just the thing we eat on Pesach, like we eat Hamentashen on Purim, cheesecake on Shavuos, Latkes on Hannukah and Apples in Honey on Rosh Hashana, rather it symbolizes the essence of the day. What is the connection?
There are various angles by which we could explore this connection, for it is like a seed with many shoots. This year let’s try to focus on the angle taken by such luminaries as the Rashba (student of the Ramban) the Maharal of Prague, and Rabbi Yerucham Lebovitz (early 20th century, Mir, Poland). Chametz and Matza represent opposites in a spectrum of physicality. Matsa is the epitome of simplicity, a ‘bare bones’ sustenance, only allowed to be made of flour and water, and in a minimal amount of time. Chametz is characterized by a composite of ingredients: first and foremost yeast, in addition to other sweeteners, binders and other enhancers. The time in which chametz is processed is expanded, as is the outcome – a puffed up, bloated, airy, spongy cake.
Matsa is indicative of perfection, for the origins of life are simple and concentrated. Chametz relates to a world which is complicated, chaotic, full of darkness, confusion, ego and physicality. Our traditions teach that the Matsa that we took out of Egypt tasted like Manna. Manna was the food which Hashem caused to shower on the Israelite camp every day for the fourty years we were in the desert. Manna is an ethereal food, as close as we can get back to the pristine state of Eden. Being sustained in this supernatural way helped elevate the Jews from their degenerate and impure state as slaves in Egypt. This is why the midrash says that the Torah could only be given to generation that ate Manna. This aspect of refinement and spirituality was shared by the matza which we took from Egypt, thus it ‘tasted’, or in other words resembled Manna.
After the sin in Eden, and after the giving of the Torah, our sin with the Golden Calf, we descended from the balance of body and soul we had achieved. On our current, sea-level state, we cannot be comfortably sustained by Matsa – it is too raw, too pure – thus we need it to be broken down, to ferment and fluff up, and become more physical for us to enjoy it. (This is alluded to in the changing of a Hey to Ches – the closing of the Hey in Matsa now forms the letters of chametz.) We needed matsa, however to break out of Egypt, for matsa represents the ascension from physicality, and this is exactly what was happening when the Jewish nation was being pulled out of the depths of Egypt and its filthy culture. This is why Matsa is called the ‘bread of freedom or redemption’, for one can only achieve true freedom in and from this world when one has once again ascended to the plateau of being sustained by matsa/manna.
Now that we understand how matsa represents transcendence, we can understand the connection to Mitvos (which, as we said is spelled the same). Mitzvos are actions which are transcendent in their essence. One must engage one’s spiritual side, to lead his body in order to do a mitzvah properly. (E.g. focusing and directing one’s energies during davening, or being considerate when doing a kindness, or being extra careful to clean for chametz with a super-human alacrity.) In Proverbs King Solomon says that a mitzvah is like a candle, and Torah is like light. For our purposes, this means that while mitzvos also have a spiritual dimension and crown, they are not entirely spiritual like Torah, but are always connected to a physical base (E.g. to a lulav, a cup of wine, or to a widow).
While we cannot live in the world of matsa forever, and indeed, after Pesach, on Shavuos there is a mitsva of offering and partaking of leavened bread, nonetheless during this week of Pesach the Creator once again invites us to partake of a special seasonal flow to transcend our regular plane of existence and elevate ourselves, and this can help us to grab us to the sparks of holiness that are in mitzvos (which explains why on Pesachwe find ourselves surrounded by more mitzvos than any other time), as well as the sanctity that lies in ourselves and in our fellow man.
Some note that there is trend in our holidays that Hashem refers to them according to what we do for Him, and we refer to it in terms of Hashem does for us. For example, Pesach (skipping over, showing mercy) is what G-d did for us, Matzos are our duty to Him; Sukkos is what Hashem did to protect and provide for us, but Hashem calls the holiday ‘the festival of first fruits’ which is our service to Him; Yom Truah, refers to our sounding of the Shofar and acclaiming Hashem as King of the Universe, while we call it after the judgement and renewal Hashem does for us on Rosh Hashana, etc. This can be compared to an intimate couple who always recall their past and consider their future in terms of their better half.