Bread is life. There are other components to the human diet, and technically we can subsist on other foods. But there is something about bread which marks it as the quintessential food, and as the metaphor for all that nourishes our existence.
Yet for eight days and nights each spring, the Jewish home is transformed into a bread-free zone. For the duration of the festival of Passover, not a breadcrumb crosses our lips, and every trace of the offending substance is removed from our domain. On Passover, bread is more treif than pork.
Of course, it is not bread per se that we banish from our lives, but rather chametz, or leaven. Passover has its own version of bread: matzah. Matzah is bona fide bread, made by mixing flour with water and baking it in an oven. The difference is that instead of being allowed to ferment and rise before baking, matzah is mixed, rolled and baked in a lightning-fast process that produces the flat, cracker-like bread we encounter on the Seder table. Matzah is bread without the body, without the sponginess, without the flavor. In a word, bread without all the things that make bread “bread.”
Chassidic teachings explain that leavened bread represents ego and self-aggrandizement, while matzah represents humility. Thus, matzah is called “the bread of faith” and “the bread of healing.” The person who is pumped full of self, whose being is swelled by pride, leaves no room for a higher truth to enter his or her life. Instead, the bloat of ego becomes the festering ground for every spiritual and material ill. On the other hand, the humble soul is a soul receptive to faith, and humility is the healing force that restores the person’s spiritual health and neutralizes the maladies of material life.
And yet, nothing is more critical to a life of meaning and productivity than a sense of self and self-significance. The Talmud tells the story of how the sages of Israel, identifying the ego as the source of all evil, decided to kill the inclination for selfishness in the heart of man—until they realized that if they succeeded in this endeavor, the world would quite literally grind to a halt.
Nothing is more critical to a life of meaning and productivity than a sense of self and self-significance.
Hence the paradoxical nature of our relationship with bread—with the leavened sort, that is. On the one hand, for eight days each year it is eschewed, banned, eradicated. Yet for the rest of the year it is consumed, embraced, even celebrated.
When ego and self-interest form the basis of our lives, then everything built upon that foundation will be flawed, unsustainable, and ultimately corrupting. Life must be predicated on the acknowledgement that we exist in order to serve something that is greater than ourselves. Once that foundation is in place, we must erect upon it an edifice that includes an appreciation of our own significance, a confidence in our abilities, a conviction that we can make a difference in our world, and the joy and satisfaction that come with a life of achievement and purpose. The foundation may be as flat as the self-effacing matzah, but the structure built upon this foundation is as robust and flavorful as a loaf of the richest bread.
Passover marks our birth as a people, the very ground of our existence. As such, it is the festival of the matzah, a time to celebrate our humble faith in our Creator and our commitment to serve Him. Upon that foundation comes the rest of the year, when the bread of life attains its body and consistency, its savor and zest.