In Sefer Sh’mos, we read about the Exodus of the Jewish People. It is a defining moment in the birth of our people, and every part of the Torah’s description is given much importance, serving as a guiding light for the future of our people.
One peculiar aspect of the story in Beshalach is the repetitive warning about not eating chametz. Imagine, you are trying to pack to leave Egypt with 3 million other people, the future is up in the air, the emotions are intense, the excitement is off the charts, and G-d comes along and repeats many times that you should eat no chametz. Not only that but He goes on to say that you need to make matzos, and that these matzos need to be eaten for seven days, and that you will be doing this for seven days every year for the rest of your life. Oh, and one more point: if you do eat chametz during any of these times you are committing a terrible sin.
Couldn’t G-d have waited till they got settled before giving them this extra baggage? Why was He so insistent that this had to be part-and-parcel of their leaving Egypt? Did He not think of the reaction so many Jewish moms in Egypt would have when faced with this challenge on top of all the other ones they were facing?
Obviously, G-d had a very, very good reason for making such a strong demand at such an early stage in the birth of the Jewish people. The message of not having any connection to chametz must be so central to the Exodus itself that without it the whole journey would be missing a key element.
Let’s start our explanation by understanding that the closest food to chametz that we have in our house during Passover is matzah, and there is a close relationship between the two. They are both made of flour and water, with matzah just missing the yeast that causes chametz to rise. In fact, two of the three letters that spell matzah and chametz are the same — the mem and the tzadi. Only the hei in matzah and the ches in chametz differentiate the two words. These two letters are in fact very similar, with the only difference being the small window in the upper left corner of the hei.
In this window lies the answer to our questions above.
Chametz leaves no window for the hot air to escape, and, as a result, chametz products rise. Matzah does not become something more than what it really is—flour and water. Chametz is bloated to appear to be more than its simple ingredients would normally produce.
Chassidic thought explains that the chametz represents the negative aspect of our ego, which keeps us out of touch with our true self, and tries to make us appear to ourselves, and others, as more than who we really are.
G-d’s message to the Jewish people is very clear. I can take you out physically, but you have to take yourself out spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. That job must start immediately upon your exit from Egypt, and must be part-and-parcel of your journey to Mt. Sinai, and for generations to come. That Exodus is going to be an ongoing one, which will challenge you from year to year, and every year at this time you must do an inventory to see how well you are keeping the negative, or bloated, aspects of your ego in check. Without those annual reminders, a person can easily become consumed by his ego, to the point of becoming an arrogant individual. Such a person is far from free, but rather a true slave of their ego, just like Pharaoh and the Egyptians were. Only through keeping the self in check are we able to truly let Hashem into all the many dimensions of our lives.
This is what the Haggadah means when it says that “each individual has to see himself as if he is coming out of Egypt.” This is the challenge of the Jewish people from the day of our founding. This is the path for us to connect to Hashem, to become a true vessel for His blessings and fulfill the important purpose He has for each of us.
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon is the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Long Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information and inspiration, visit www.chabadli.org or Facebook.com/RabbiTeldon to view his weekly broadcasts.