“Chometz, Matzah and Faith in Redemption”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, the normal Torah portion is preempted by the upcoming holiday of Passover which begins Wednesday evening, April 16, 2003.

A major theme of the Passover holiday is of course the elimination of Chometz (leaven) and the substitution of matzah in its stead. Oddly enough, both chometz and matzah are made of the exact same ingredients: flour and water. However, chometz is allowed to ferment. By permitting the mixture of flour and water to remain undisturbed for more than 18 minutes, the mixture becomes leavened–chometz, and is forbidden for the duration of Passover. Matzah, on the other hand, contains the same ingredients, flour and water, but the mixture–the dough, is constantly kneaded. Even though the dough may be kneaded for more than 18 minutes, because of the constant action, it never ferments. Once the kneading is completed, the dough is quickly shaped into matzah and baked, so that it never becomes chometz.

The method by which dough becomes chometz underscores that by simply doing “nothing”–by allowing the flour and water to remain dormant, the mixture begins to ferment. The dough rises and expands almost by itself.

Our Rabbis suggest that there is a profound message to be elicited from the manufacture of chometz. All too often people seek an easy way out, in the expectation that things will come their way with little or no effort or labor. Wealth will appear spontaneously. Intelligence will suddenly emerge. Health and strength will be maintained automatically. But, we know that such assumptions are not true. They are in fact predicated on totally false hopes and expectations. Indeed, we learn from the matzah that a truly meaningful life comes not automatically, but only through significant effort and labor. Much more than a simple “pleasurable” life, Judaism promotes a fulfilled life. “Fulfillment,” as opposed to pleasure, often involves significant amounts of hard work. While the task may be difficult, it nevertheless leaves us with a far more permanent sense of satisfaction, rather than a transitory, often illusionary, moment of pleasure. So, in effect, my friends, the message of Passover is: Don’t be a “half-baked matzah!” Invest the effort and reap the more permanent rewards that a fulfilling experience provides.

Another important concept to bear in mind regarding the Passover festival is that Passover is significantly different than any of the other Jewish holidays: Shavuot, Succot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur. It differs in that only Passover has a “make-up” date. That’s right! If a Jew misses Passover, the Bible tells us (Numbers 9:9-14), that we are able to observe it a month later, on the 14th of Iyar. In ancient times, if a Jewish person was on a long journey and was unable to make it to Jerusalem in time for the Nissan holiday, or was in a state of ritual impurity, those people were permitted to go to the Temple one month later and bring the Pascal sacrifice while celebrating a modified form of Passover.

Now that’s amazing, because Succot, which commemorates the wondrous travels of the Jews in the wilderness for 40 years, living in huts under the miraculous protection of G-d; Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, the holiest days of the year–none of these holidays have make-up dates! And yet, Passover has a make-up date! Why should that be?

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer explains that the festivals of Shavuot and Succot simply mark historical events in Jewish history. The Torah was given on the 6th of Sivan–so we celebrate Shavuot. We dwelt in booths in the wilderness– therefore we celebrate Succot. These commemorations mark important events that had already occurred to the Jewish people. Passover, on the other hand, is the only holiday that the Jews celebrated even though the event had not yet occurred. Think about it. The Jews were slaves in Egypt, they were told that at midnight on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan the first born plague would occur and the people will be redeemed. Despite the fact that nothing had yet happened, the people brought the Pascal sacrifice, even before the process of salvation and the liberation had begun. As far as the Israelites knew, midnight could very well come and go and they would still be slaves.

In order to celebrate that first Passover, the people of the generation of the Exodus had to have extraordinary faith that they would be redeemed. And that’s true about us as well today. We too must have faith that we will be redeemed. Jews can probably survive 365 days and make it to the next year even if we miss celebrating Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, even if we fail to dwell in a Succah, even if we miss both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But, we Jews cannot survive an entire year without Passover, without reaffirming the faith that, in the face of extraordinary challenges, in the face of profound darkness, like the Jews of Egypt, we will be redeemed. That’s why it’s necessary to have that make-up date for Passover.

Despite the bleakness reflected in much of Jewish current events, in face of unrelenting assimilation, in face of the growing strength of the enemies of our people in Israel and around the world, what is most crucial is that we not despair. We may still be enslaved in Egypt but the Al-mighty will reach out to redeem us. And in an instant, ba’chatzi ha’layla, at the darkest, bleakest moment, at midnight, we will be saved. If we only have faith! It is this faith that we must affirm and reaffirm on the festival of Passover.

Chag kasher v’samayach. We wish all our friends a wonderfully joyous and meaningful Passover.

May you be blessed.