Chametz: Fostering the Spiritual Awareness of Time
And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:39)
Have you ever considered the difference between chametz and matzah, leavened and unleavened bread? While in other areas of Jewish law, if a forbidden substance is mixed in with a permitted substance, the forbidden substance is nullified if there is a certain amount of permitted food in the mixture, generally but not always sixty times. Thus, for example, if milk accidentally fell into a chicken soup, if there is sixty times more soup than milk the mixture is permitted. It is as if the forbidden substance is not there at all. (Batel b’shishim) Yet when it comes to a little chametz that falls into a mixture of kosher for Passover items, we rule afilu b’elef lo batel, even if the mixture has 1/1000th of chametz, it is forbidden for use on Passover.
Yet when we consider this, it is rather strange, for what is chametz and what is matzah? Both consist of only two ingredients- flour and water. They are the same thing. For most of the year matzah is just one form of bread (lechem), but on Passover this same object becomes so forbidden that it can never be nullified.
What makes chametz unique is not the contents, but the actual preparation itself. If the bread is baked within eighteen minutes, it is permitted and is matzah; if not it is chametz and must be destroyed. Anyone who has been to a matzah factory can see this process in action, as the kitchens are thoroughly scrubbed down to ensure no pieces of dough stick on the tables or on the machines after eighteen minutes. Failure to do this appropriately creates not a matzah factory, but a chametz factory!
The Torah points us to the importance of time itself, and that the time we have here cannot be taken for granted, much less abused. Our Parashah is very clear that now of redemption, a night in which the people were explicitly told to be ready, was a night in which they were not ready. They left with bowls of dough and had not prepared for the journey. On the night of redemption, they were tarrying, and it took the forceful hand of the Egyptians to get them to move! In other words, the Jewish people were late for their own redemption!
The entire process of matzah preparation focuses on the importance of realizing the passage of time as a metaphor for our lives. Matzah is a teaching about mindfulness, and that if we are not aware of the passage of time, we will inevitably miss opportunities that can change the course of our personal and national history.
On a personal level, consider the number of opportunities every day we can make a difference. Our parashah commands us to guard the matzah from leavening (Exodus 12:17). Noting the etymological becoming connection between matzot and mitzvot, the rabbis underscore that just like one should not allow the dough to become chametz, so too ein machmitzin al a mitvot, one should not delay doing a mitzvah. If one can do a mitzvah, they should immediately do it (Mekhilat d’rebbe Yishmael 12:17).
On a national level, consider the declaration of Ben Gurion, that Friday afternoon at the Tel Aviv Museum on the 14th of May at 3:30 PM. There was pressure to delay the declaration, considering an impending war and British opposition, and yet Ben Gurion saw the moment and claimed it. Jewish history has never been the same.
“Teach us to count our days, so we shall be given a heart of understanding” (Psalm 90:2).
When God liberated the people in Egypt the first commandment given to them is to establish a calendar and sanctify the new moon. “And God said to Moses: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2). In other words, with freedom, the Jewish people took ownership of time.
Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, the great 20th century Jewish thinker, expresses this idea beautifully:
Time is of critical importance- not years or months- but seconds and split seconds. This time-awareness and appreciation is the singular gift given to free man, because time belongs to him: it is his time, and he can utilize it to the utmost or waste it. A free man does not want time to pass; he wants time to slow down, because to him time is a treasure. To the slave, however, time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass… The slave personality lacks the great excitement of opportunities knocking at the door, of challenges summoning him to action, of tense expectations and fears of failure… The Judaic philosophy of time comes to expression in the text of kiddush. In physics, time is measured by the clock. But pure time- real time, cannot be quantified; it is pure quality. With kiddush, we sanctify time and endow it with creativity and meaning. It is the first thing we do as a free people at the Seder. (From Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesach and the Haggadah, Ktav, 2006, pp 41-42.)
The Gaon of Vilna, one of the great Torah scholars of the 18th century, was said to have had a list in which he confessed on Yom Kippur every moment he believed he was given to him and wasted. Benjamin Franklin similarly created a journal he used to keep track of his use of time. He stated “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”
The pandemic from which we pray we are emerging has forced us to consider in sometimes existential ways the real notion that time is limited. One of our volunteers taught me this in a very tangible way. She considered all her involvements in life and decided to commit to only those which reflect her ultimate goals. The rest she dropped. The pandemic clearly was traumatic and difficult, but in one sense it was liberating. It taught many that they do not have the time to be unhappy and unfulfilled, do not have the time to engage with meaningless activities or toxic people, and do not have the time to wait for their dreams to come to them. Before the pandemic perhaps we claimed we did not have the time to do things we wanted. Following the pandemic, perhaps we feel that we don’t have the time not to do them.
The commandment of chametz and matzah points us to the importance of time, to be cognizant of its passage. The redemption happened k’heref ayin like the blink of an eye, and because the Jewish people delayed they almost missed their own redemption.
Yes. Every second counts.
 The same image is used with Lot, who tarries in Sodom and the angels need to forcefully extract him from the home. The rabbis say that night was also “Passover.” The anachronism and the meaning of that statement is a subject for a different reflection.