21 Nisan 5781

Am I Still a Slave?

In Matthew 4: 3-4 it is written: ” The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the son of God, (which is a messianic title) tell these stones to become bread.” Yeshua replied: “It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Yeshua was referring to the Torah, to Devarim 8:3 which tells us: “And He humbled you, and let you hunger, and fed you with manna, of which you did not know, neither did your fathers know; that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD, does man live.”

While meditating on the holiday of Pesach, I studied the elements of this celebration: the Haggadah, the four cups, the eating of matzah and maror, the thanksgiving offering of a lamb or goat to feed the community and its families, about the meaning of Pesach (which literally means to jump or step over), about the Pesach questions, the types of children described in the Hagaddah; in short, so many beautiful interpretations and teachings…. however, today I want to focus on the theme of bread and freedom.

Bread according to many sages can refer to the Yetzer Harah, since the yeast only adds flavor and volume to the bread, nothing more. It doesn’t add any nutritional value to the body, in fact, we might even gain a couple of few pounds, and it serves the function of helping us digest bread. What does it symbolize? Immediate pleasure that does not “measure or think about” the consequences of its actions. We might tend to condemn the Yetzer Harah, as do other religions that teach that us that we can only control these impulses through punishment or abstention which do not last, rather they tend to make people miserable because they try to be something they’re not.

We can learn from this that our impulse to do wrong is part of our state of balance and to the proper extent, it is good. As our Rabbi Percy of blessed memory used to say: “God created us as human beings, and his goal is not to destroy our humanity, but that we learn to dominate our “animal” nature”.

Bread can also refer to ego or arrogance. Yes, to the famous “I, my, me, with me and if there is something left, it is for me, too”. But what is the ego? We can’t say that the ego itself is bad since without the ego there would be no boundaries between our limits and those of others, between the self and others; nor could we answer, “who am I”? Rather, it seems that we are referring to “egotism”, which can be defined as “cult adoration or excessive self-love” according to the Royal Spanish Academy. It is that part within that does not allow us to see beyond our own self-interest; that part that does not allow chesed (mercy or grace) to exist; that part where there is little freedom to give to others without restraint; that part of us that withholds praise from others.  Other problems may arise such as narcissism (which is an excessive sense of our self-importance, the deep need for extreme attention and admiration), having feelings of grandiosity, the rejection of others derived from self-praise, not allowing our weaknesses to be seen by others, distorting the reality about who we are, possessing little empathy toward others, not being able to bear anyone having authority over us or having the humility to receive criticism from others without taking offense; having problems relating to our community, or giving too much importance to vain things (such as too much money, too much pleasure), being obsessed with comparing oneself with others or being exhibitionists (showing off what we own or what we have).

This celebration is about our importance to God, not as individuals but as a community. To give thanks, matzah can be understood as humility and for this reason, we call it the “poor man’s bread”, because it is simple, straightforward, and communal.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato tells us the following: “that bread is the principal food for man. The presence of yeast in bread is natural, making bread a staple of man’s existence, tasty and digestible. Man needs the physical to survive. The evil inclination (Yetzer Harah) is a proclivity towards the physical; because bread is naturally tasty, man is attracted to this physical “pleasure”, to maintain his health and existence.” 

I like the idea that bread is delicious and is an expression of pleasure for us, however, we must at various times in our life, refrain from this pleasure, to elevate our souls. If we cannot abstain from bread for just a week, imagine what is ruling over us? Does bread rule us or do we rule over bread? In other words, do pleasures or arrogance rule or do we exercise dominion over them? This idea seems to be associated with freedom, since if I am still a slave to my pleasures and I do not exercise self-control, then I am not free, however, this is a festival of freedom.

So, the main point is that we can use our animal nature to elevate our physical being by mastering our desires and impulses and diverting them toward something greater. Shemot 12:15 says “Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; however, the first day you shall put away leaven from your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel” and in chapter 13: 7, it says: “Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days and there shall no leavened bread be seen with you, neither shall there be leaven seen with you in all your borders ” 

It struck me that the Torah never told us ” to burn” or “to destroy” the chametz, rather to work on “removing the chametz from our homes”. Paraphrased it might say, we should “sanctify our impulses/desires/pleasures from our bodies” and remove the yetzer harah or arrogance from our animal natures (our borders)”. Of course, it is not my intention to contradict what the sages of Israel teach us, but what I am saying is that the message is clear: “We can exercise dominion over our impulses”, “we can use our God-given nature to elevate ourselves.”With this knowledge, the next step is introspection, seeking within, meditating, then “Lech Lecha” – Get yourself out, as Abraham Avinu did. 

Moshe is not mentioned in the Haggadah; in fact, there are several explanations as for that; one is to demonstrate that there is only One God who saves us, it was not Moshe; he was the liberator. Rather it is the Bore Olam who brought us out of Egypt as we read in the First Commandment. But perhaps, in a more subtle way, Moshe is a representation of the human being, of the man – Adam – our animal nature; it is not man who will save us, it is always God.

To return to how I started this message, Yeshua was tempted by his own Yetzer Harah, which is in opposition to popular culture, where man says to himself “Why can’t I make a little bread? Why can’t I satisfy my physical needs and prove to myself that I am self-sufficient, simply for my own pleasure?”  By turning physical stones into bread, he would have pleased his ego (simply put, feed his stomach), but instead, he responded through Torah: “Man shall not live by bread alone ….” He didn’t deny bread, he affirmed that it is good, but that there is something higher than bread that keeps man alive and that is every word that comes out of the mouth of God. What Word came out of the mouth of the Eternal?  It’s the Torah. By His mouth, everything was created. From this even, Yeshua was achieving balance between his body and soul, his natural instincts for pleasure and spirituality.

As I meditated on this study, I wondered how often I have lived for pleasure, when I have given free rein to my desires. I think that this High Holiday is one more opportunity to receive spiritual nourishment and reach a balance in mind/body/ soul, and emotions or impulses; and as our sages say, to balance our Nefesh and Ruach to reach the level of Neshama.

Shabbat Shalom!

Chag Sameach Pesach!

by Mauricio Quintero       English narration