Ask people to free associate with the word Passover, and many people will forgo lofty ideas like redemption to say, “matzah.” Instead of cracking the inevitable joke about prunes, I’d like to examine this answer more closely. It’s not a frivolous answer. Matzah is not only a food, it is a symbol. It is a symbol of life free from leaven. But what’s the big deal about leaven, and why is the lack of it central to our experience of the holiday?
Passover and Freedom
Freedom is the theme of Passover, and leaven is the symbol of everything that prevents us from experiencing freedom. Think about yeast, the leavening that causes bread to rise. When we add water to a packet of yeast it becomes greyish- brown, bubbly glop with an unpleasant odor. Fermentation represents the spiritual, emotional and psychological muck that prevents us from experiencing freedom.
Freedom is a State of Mind
Freedom is a state of mind. Each person has to decide whether to be free or not. Rav Kook (19th/20th century Israel) wrote that “It is possible to find an educated slave whose spirit is full of freedom, and conversely, a free person whose spirit is servile.” He goes on to describe freedom not as a physical state, but rather as fidelity to one’s inner essence and the image of God in one’s midst. In other words, freedom is expressing one’s true self as God meant us to be. What gets in the way of this self-expression is chametz—leavening. The leavening is the spiritual schmutz that mutates our pure essence. Matzah is a symbol of freedom because it is bread in its purest, simplest state. Matzah is bread before leavening changes it.
Our Personal Chametz
As we stock our pantries with boxes of matzah we’ve purchased for the holiday, let us contemplate what our personal chametz is. What prevents us from expressing ourselves fully? What is getting in the way of our inner essence? Then, let’s practice mindfulness during the week of Passover. When we eat our matzah this year, let’s experience it as an opportunity to let go of what is holding us back and get rid of the chametz in our souls.