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The Freedom of Simplicity

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky

The paradoxical meaning of matzah.

The Passover Seder expresses within itself two opposite themes. There are the bitter herbs and the charoses that symbolize the hardship and bitterness of the enslavement in Egypt. On the other hand, the cups of wine, the beautiful meal and the act of reclining all symbolize the freedom and wellbeing of our liberation.

Reconciling these two opposite features of the Seder night is simple. For we need to remember both the hard times before liberation and the subsequent good times. The hard times before serve to accentuate the thrill of freedom and the bounty of wealth afterwards, and enacting them both gives us the full measure of God's benevolence.

How can matzah be the symbol of both slavery and freedom?

But the matzah itself, the most important element of the Seder, remains a paradox. On the one hand, matzah is meant to symbolize freedom. The Torah itself describes it as such, "Seven days you shall eat...for you left Egypt in great haste" (Deut. 16:3). The matzah therefore symbolizes the escape to freedom. We are also enjoined to eat the matzah while reclining, like the drinking of the cups of wine, because it is an act of freedom, unlike the bitter herbs which symbolize slavery.

Yet matzah is called "lechem oni" (usually translated as "bread of affliction"). It is as simple and bland as could be -- flour and water. Period. Any addition of flavor and/or sweetener would render it unfit to use for the Seder. It is not processed (i.e. fermentation) in any way. Just plain flour and water dough, unceremoniously tossed into the oven. How can that express the thrill of freedom and wealth? How is it integrated with the splendidly set table, the lordly reclining, the heady cups of wine?

The Maharal (16th century philosopher) answers the question by reinterpreting the words "lechem oni" which he translates as bread of "poverty,", rather than bread of "affliction." It is not poverty in the sense of suffering, but rather poverty as a simple description of a "lack of something."

How is this "lack" symbolic of freedom? The answer is that the opposite of freedom is dependence. When someone has imposed his dominion over us and we need to request permission to do something, we are not free. And an internal dependence is even worse than a dependence on an external element. A person who cannot survive the day without a pack of cigarettes is no longer a fully free man. He is restricted by the need for cigarettes.

But cigarettes are still an alien element. What about our "needs"? The greater our "needs," the more subservient we are. If our "needs" include eating out, then we must earn enough to eat out, live in proximity of good restaurants, spend the time to think and find those restaurants, etc.

The core of freedom, on the personal level, is the simplicity of one's base of "needs."

Even emotionally, our freedom is curtailed by our "needs." The more we need "social approval," the less we are able to do what is right. The more we need to control others, the less genuine friendships we can forge, and so on.

Thus the core of freedom, on the personal level, is the simplicity of one's base of "needs." Hence the bread (which is the staff of life) of Passover is the simplest of all. It is flour and water -- nothing more. And when one's base of existence is as simple as possible, his freedom is greater. The backpacker has by far a greater range of travel than the jetsetter.

The Torah reinforces this point by explaining that matzah is eaten because "you left Egypt in great haste." There are great moments of opportunity in history that are not utilized because the window of that opportunity is extremely narrow. God chose to redeem Israel at a certain moment in time. Had Israel chosen to dawdle over their possessions and checklists, that moment would have snapped shut forever. It was only because they grabbed their half-baked breads and ran that they caught the open window of time, so to speak.

Even in contemporary history we have witnessed this phenomenon. Some Jews did not escape Germany and other countries because they did not have means to do so. This was a terrible tragedy. But the greater tragedy was the Jews who didn't escape because of the assets that they did possess. They could not simply leave everything and run. Their possessions and means became chains of slavery instead of vessels of freedom. (This has repeated itself in Arab countries as well.)

Why the Luxury?

But the question remains. If freedom is about a simplification of needs, why are so many of the celebrations of freedom on the Seder night marked by the display of comfort and plenty? Why the beautiful table, the cups of wine, the reclining, the new clothing?

Let us use an illustration to explain this point. A person acquires a car. Does that enhance or restrict his mobility? The answer is that if the person becomes so needy of the car that he can no longer walk even a few blocks without it, then the car has enslaved him. But if he continues to walk wherever possible, and uses the car to extend his range of mobility, then the car has extended his freedom of mobility.

So too with any bounty that God bestows upon us. If they become "needs," then we are enslaved by them. If they are seen as opportunities, then they extend our liberty and freedom of choice.

As human beings, freedom is our most cherished attribute. Free choice is the essence of being human. To attain our full measure of freedom, we must avoid shackling ourselves with "artificial" needs. The less our needs, the greater our freedom to act upon the principle and do what which is right.

And when we have attained that total freedom, then the wealth and bounty that God has bestowed upon us become tools for growth and accomplishments, rather than chains of needs that must be serviced.

As we eat the simple, unadorned matzah on Seder night, let us reflect that we are 'resetting' our base level of subsistence to its most elementary of levels. We look around and observe the table, the meal, the wine, and learn to partake of them not as enslaved hedonists, but as free men.



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