Pesach – Leaving the Imprisonment of Materialism

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh
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On Pesach, when we left Egypt, we left in haste, and therefore the bread we were carrying did not have a chance to become leavened (chometz). We left with unleavened bread – matzah – which is called lechem oni, “the poor man’s bread.” Why should it matter that we left Egypt with unleavened bread? What does this fact of history have to do with us now?

It has relevance to us, even now. Pesach, the “Chag HaMatzos” – the festival of unleavened bread – is called zman cheiruseinu, the time of our freedom. Therefore, matzah hints how we can reach cheirus/freedom. The mitzvah on Pesach to eat matzah serves for us a way to enter our soul – by leaving materialism.

When the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, they had to work with bricks (choimer) and mortar (levainim). The Hebrew word for bricks is choimer, which can also mean “materialism”. In other words, leaving Egypt was essentially about leaving our materialistic pursuits and entering into spirituality, represented by matzah, which was a very simple kind of bread, a poor man’s bread. The lesson we learn from this is that when we go with simplicity, we can enter the world of spirituality.

On every Yom Tov, there is a mitzvah to rejoice. How do we rejoice with our freedom we have on Pesach?

There must be joy amongst our feeling of freedom, or else we can’t call it freedom. Freedom that has no joy in it cannot be called freedom. So if we reach the desire to leave materialistic pursuits and instead enter into spirituality, it should be with the same mentality that the people had when they left Egypt. When we left Egypt, it wasn’t because we wanted to reach high levels in spirituality or deep levels of understanding. It was because we couldn’t wait to escape the enormous pressure that was upon us then, the immense pressure of exile that did not allow our soul to have serenity.

If one reaches the understanding that it is worthwhile to leave materialistic pursuits and instead enter into spiritual pursuits, it shouldn’t be with the attitude that spirituality is the “good thing to do, therefore, I will pursue it.” Of course, spirituality is good, and Chazal tell us that is the only true good there is; we believe in this and we yearn for that true good. But this should not be our initial motivation in seeking spirituality.

Our initial motivation should be: “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel work with cruel labor, and they embittered their lives, with difficult work, with bricks and mortar.”

A person has to realize that life on this world involves materialism, and this means that we are forced to be in this cruel labor of materialism! Living a life of materialistic pursuit is really a form of bitterness. If someone doesn’t feel this way, he hasn’t yet uncovered a desire to want to leave this exile and have the redemption. If one doesn’t have a true desire to leave his exile, he can’t be redeemed…

Leaving a physical prison is not the same kind of redemption as leaving a spiritual kind of imprisonment. When a person gets out of jail, he’s free, whether or not he wanted to get out. But when it comes to leaving our spiritual prison within us, the only way to get out of it is if we truly want to get out of it. Otherwise, we won’t be able to get out of it.

In order to start serving Hashem, we must first come to the recognition that our life of materialistic pursuits actually resembles the cruel labor of Egypt, since the “bricks and mortar” – a.k.a. materialism – imprisoned us. The body, which keeps our soul in prison, is a cruel prison to our soul. We must feel a true wish to go free from the bonds of materialistic pursuits that are entrapping the soul.

After we come to that recognition, we must then come to do as the people did in Egypt when they realized their suffering, which was that they cried out to Hashem (and their groans were indeed heard by Hashem). It is therefore not enough for us to have a desire to leave exile – ultimately, it is up to Hashem to take us out, whenever it is His will to do so. For this reason, we must cry out to Hashem in prayer, just as the people did in Egypt.

We must cry out to Hashem from the very depths of the soul.

We must feel that our body’s hold on our soul is a form of cruel labor. We must feel the bitterness of this in the same way that we felt embittered by the Egyptians. If we don’t feel this bitterness, then we won’t be able to cry out to Hashem from a true desire to escape.

A person must realize that he needs to get out of his inner imprisonment which entails crying to Hashem for days and nights, from the depth of our hearts and not just to cry ‘crocodile tears’. There can be no hope for a person to truly serve Hashem without crying from the depth of his heart, because he will be missing the first, basic point that he needs to start with.

May Hashem help all of us that we should first come to recognize the lowliness of our situation, to realize that without being close to Him, life is not a life, but a total fantasy. May this recognition cause to feel, with Hashem’s help, a true yearning to be freed from this dark exile – and to reach the light of the redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.