The differences between chametz (leavened bread) that Jews are forbidden to eat on Passover and the matzah that Jews are required to eat on Passover are seemingly minute. In fact, chametz and matzah may have the exact same ingredients – flour and water – the only difference being that chametz bread was allowed to puff up and rise while the matzah is fastidiously flattened and swiftly baked to avoid any puffication. Seemingly a minor distinction indeed. Yet the prohibition of consuming chametz on Passover carries such enormous weight that a person who violates this commandment is spiritually cut off (kareis) from the Jewish people. This very strict punishment for what looks like a very small infraction begs the question: What is the meaning behind this enigmatic mitzvah and what is so fundamental about it that its transgression results in being disenfranchised from the Jewish nation? This is question number one.
We are all aware of the important role that the yetzer ra (evil inclination) plays in Jewish philosophy; namely to be the chief impediment in our paths to achieving what is required of us in our spiritual lives. The yetzer ra is the reason why we struggle to identify ourselves as spiritual beings, why mitzvahs sometimes seem to us a burden, and why we have a tendency to refrain from seeking spiritual successes and instead crave physical pleasures alone. This formidable foe is classified in the Talmud (Brachos 17a) as “the leaven in the bread.” This puzzling classification brings us to question number two: What does the force that is constantly compelling us to sin – our evil inclination – have to do with the culinary quality that makes bread rise; that transforms matzah to chametz?
Perhaps this Talmudic statement can shed some light on the root of the yetzer ra and illuminate our eyes to the path to overcome this great obstacle. The core conflict of our lives is the struggle between our bodies and souls, between the physical and spiritual. Are we going to prioritize our body, its whims and agenda, or will our soul be the sole goal of our existence, and our body merely the tool to actualize the soul’s desires? Will we view the physical as a means to accomplish our real goals which are our soulful eternal desires, or will we make the fatal error of forgetting that this world is a transient one, a mere corridor to a world where mitzvahs and spiritual accomplishments are all that matters, and get caught up with the trappings and glamour of this physical world? This equation of viewing our physical entities as a means or as an end is the challenge of existence and is symbolized by the difference between matzah and chametz. While it is true that everyone must take steps to ensure that their physical needs are met, the proper attitude must be that one can suffice with matzah, with the realization that their interactions with the physical world are only to provide fuel and energy to accomplish life’s true goals. The aim of the yetzer ra is to take the physical world and enlarge, expand, augment and aggrandize it – mirroring precisely the transformation from matzah to chametz – and attempt to deceive us into believing that this physical life is what we should strive for. On Passover when we chew on the minimalistic matzah – that unpretentious food devoid of any trappings of excess – we remind ourselves of this crucial lesson at the core of the Jewish Weltanschauung: to eschew the mistaken notion that this passing world and all of its physical distractions have any intrinsic value, rather to adopt the matzah view of life that physicality must take a back seat to the true aims of our existence: Torah, mitzvahs and other soulful activities. This is the lesson behind matzah and chametz, and this is why the Torah views this mitzvah so stringently, because it underscores the very essence of the Jewish mission.