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Beit Midrash Pesach

Chapter One-Part Two

The Meaning of Exodus

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4. At the Exodus, the Material World Became a Vehicle for God’s Shekhina
The way this world is ordered, its material aspects gain prominence first and easily reach their complete, powerful expression. Spiritual elements, however, remain hidden; it takes a long time before their significance becomes discernible. It was thus natural that the Egyptians initially overpowered Israel, for Egyptian might had already come to full fruition, while Israel was still like an unborn embryo. Since Israel’s strength could not be yet expressed, the Egyptians exploited Israel’s weakness and enslaved them to fuel their glory and their lusts.
But this was also for the best. Spirituality cannot be expressed in the world without a material basis, and this is exactly what we gained from being enslaved in Egypt. During the entire period that the Egyptians enslaved Israel and thought that they were overpowering us completely, in reality we were drawing and absorbing their power, as it is written: "The Israelites were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them" (Shemot 1:7). The more the Egyptians tried to enslave and subdue us, the more we increased, as it is written: "But the more they tormented them, the more they multiplied, and the more they proliferated" (Ibid. 12) until we numbered 600,000 adult men. Maharal explains (Gevurot Hashem chs. 4 and 12) that this was the number necessary for the establishment of the nation of Israel. Once we numbered 600,000, an aspect of the divine was revealed within us, the Egyptian empire collapsed, and we left Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai.
Not only were we blessed with fertility in Egypt, we also left Egypt with great wealth, compensation for many years of slavery. Thus, Israel began its course with a solid material foundation. This is the meaning of:
When you go, you shall not go empty-handed; rather, every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of she who lives in her house silver and gold vessels and clothes; and you shall put them upon your sons and your daughters, and thus you shall despoil Egypt. (Shemot 3:21-22)

The Egyptians got their just desserts; had they chosen to be righteous, they would have taken care of the Israelites and helped them multiply and prosper. They would have benefited from this doubly, as they did when Yosef contributed to Egypt’s success during the difficult years of famine. But they chose evil, cruelly enslaving Israel, and consequently they were punished with ten plagues. The name of God was thus sanctified in the world, for the wicked were brought to justice and Israel left to eternal freedom.
5. The Meaning of the Prohibition against Ĥametz – Pride in Relation to God
The prohibition against ĥametz on Pesaĥ is especially stringent, for the Torah not only forbade eating it, but commanded that it not be seen nor found in our possession. Our Sages further forbade eating any food with even the slightest amount of ĥametz mixed in. Thus the avoidance of ĥametz on Pesaĥ is absolute. This is because ĥametz symbolizes evil, as it says in the Zohar (2:40b) that ĥametz is the evil impulse. Specifically, it alludes to the impulse of pride. Fermentation causes dough to rise – it looks as though the dough is inflating itself and puffing up with pride, as an arrogant person would. In contrast, matza, which remains in its original size, as it was when God created it, symbolizes the trait of humility.
At first glance, this is difficult to understand. If ĥametz represents the evil inclination, then why is there no commandment or custom to avoid it throughout the year? On the contrary, man is praised for knowing how to make wheat into tasty ĥametz cakes (see Tanĥuma Tazri’a 5). This was the Creator’s purpose in endowing man with the wisdom and practical skills to engage in developing the world. God created an imperfect world intentionally, so that man could imitate His deeds and participate in improving the world through scientific and technological development.
The answer is that there are two types of pride: One is that man exaggerates his own praiseworthiness and thinks he is wiser, stronger, and better than he really is. Any intelligent person understands that such pride harms one’s ability to actualize his potential for the betterment of the world. His ability to judge is completely impaired, and he cannot conduct his life properly. Clearly, such pride is inappropriate all year long and has nothing to do with the prohibition of ĥametz. On the contrary, such pride detracts from one’s good works and thus harms the good, year-round ĥametz.
The second type of pride, which corresponds to ĥametz on Pesaĥ, is man’s pride vis-à-vis his Creator, his God. Jewish faith is predicated on the acknowledgment that God created the world and determined its destiny, and that the roots of all things depend on Him alone. Although God gave man the ability to improve and to develop the world, this is limited to manipulating and developing the outgrowths of the root elements of creation; man has no power over the root elements, which are divine creations. God created the world, chose the people of Israel to be His am segula, His treasured nation, and gave them the Torah. Man has no authority to call these fundamental principles into question. Therefore, when one stands before his Creator, he must envelop himself in humility and make every effort not mix his petty human thoughts with the fundamental principles of creation. Such confusion, like ĥametz on Pesaĥ, is forbidden.
Pesaĥ, and especially the Seder, is designed to instill in us the fundamentals of faith: that the world has a Creator, that He watches over His creatures, and that He chose the people of Israel to reveal His name in the world. Whenever there is revelation of an aspect of the divine in the world, it appears in a completely miraculous fashion, to show that it is not a human endeavor. Thus, the Exodus was accompanied by signs and wonders, to make public that the election of Israel was a divine matter. Similarly, the Torah was given with obvious miracles, to a generation that lived miraculously for forty years in the desert, in order to make it known that this was an entirely divine matter. In other words, we receive the fundamental principles of faith from God – we do not invent them. Whoever mixes some human aspect into these basic principles of faith is guilty of idolatry. This is alluded to in Zohar’s statement that ĥametz on Pesaĥ is idolatry (2:182a).
Therefore, on Pesaĥ, the holiday geared toward imparting the fundamentals of faith, we are commanded to be extremely cautious to avoid eating and possessing even a smidgen of ĥametz, which symbolizes our human aspects that must not get mixed in when we speak about the roots and foundations of faith. During the rest of the year, however, when we are involved with developing and improving the branches, ĥametz is allowed and even desirable.
6. The Meaning of Matza
Matza, symbolizing our recognition that the spiritual roots of things are beyond our grasp even though God granted us the ability to operate within and improve the world, is the opposite of ĥametz. Therefore, on Pesaĥ, when we are engaged with the most fundamental elements of faith, we do not mix even one iota of ĥametz in our food. We eat only matza, which remains simple and thin throughout its baking, without going through any additional process of swelling.
Through our humility before God, expressed in the matza, we internalize the faith, first revealed at the Exodus from Egypt, that God actively watches over the world and elected Israel. To be sure, there were elite individuals who believed in God even before the Exodus, but their connection with the divine was of a personal nature. The wholeness of faith was first revealed only at the Exodus, with the formation of a complete nation containing all strata of society destined to manifest God’s name in the world.
Matza comes to remind us of faith and is therefore called the "food of faith" (meikhla de-mehemnuta) by the Zohar (2:183b). By eating matza on the Seder night with the proper intent, one achieves faith, and by eating matza all seven days of Pesaĥ, one implants that faith firmly in one’s heart (Pri Tzadik, Pesaĥ 9).
Since matza signifies faith, it is understandable that its entire manufacturing process must be performed very meticulously, as we will learn below (ch. 12, p. 200 ff.). This is because the roots of all things depend on faith, and any small flaw in faith can cause tremendous destruction in the world.
We can thus understand why the nation of Israel came into being as slaves in Egypt. All other nations develop naturally, from the ground up, from family to clan to tribe to nation. As they grow, they develop cultures that evolve out of the circumstances of their lives, the climate of their territories, and their conflicts with their neighbors. As part of the emergence of their culture, they develop some type of deistic belief. Since human beings are involved in their invention, such beliefs are idolatrous.
In contrast, Israel became a nation as slaves, devoid of any culture. They could not develop their own culture while enslaved and lacking national self-esteem. At the same time, Egyptian culture was foreign to them and possibly despised by them, as it was associated with their tormentors. Israel was thus a tabula rasa, free of preconceived notions, and perfectly capable of absorbing the true faith based on divine revelation and accepting the Torah without introducing human considerations into its fundamental principles. The impoverished, unembellished matza alludes to the condition of the Israelites at that time.

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