The Good, the Bad and the Unleavened
“Why on this night do we only eat matzah?”
It really is the million-dollar question. Why do we have to eat this dry, crumbly bread not only for one night, but for eight nights? While there might be some matzah connoisseurs out there, for most it is at best passable and at worst a plague for eight nights! As a friend of mine put it last year, “I hate Passover! You have to eat food you don’t like and spend time with relatives you don’t like.” It is called the “bread of affliction” after all …
But enough with the kvetching. If I’m honest, perhaps I’m overstating my dislike for matzah, yet the question remains: “Why on this night do we only eat matzah?”
The Traditional Answer
We of course know the traditional answer: “Because our ancestors had to leave Egypt in such haste, there wasn’t enough time for their bread to rise.” But I’m sure there must be more to it than that.
Taking a look at the Torah, we find that unleavened bread makes several appearances, all in connection with the sacrifices that we had to offer. We find that, for the most part, God specifically instructs us not to mix leaven with our offerings to Him (see Exodus 23:18 and 34:25). This, together with the rule about not eating fat, could lead us to believe that God has some strange eating habits, perhaps a forerunner to the modern vegan diet. Or, more probably, God is trying to tell us something.
The rabbis teach that leaven or yeast is used throughout Scripture as a symbol for sin (see, for example, Berachot 17a and also Rashi on that passage). Sin, simply put, is anything bad that we do/say/think. God didn’t want us to mix leaven with our sacrifices, in order to teach us that when we approach Him, He expects us to be pure and holy, just like He is. The very setup of the Tabernacle teaches us that while God wants to live among us, He is still decidedly different from us. We were to never forget that He is a holy God who cannot have anything sinful in His presence. As He put it, “You shall be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26).
The Real Problem
The problem, of course, is that we are not holy. Most of us would like to think that we are good, law-abiding citizens. Some of us might even think that we are a bit above average in the honoring-God department. The traditional, rabbinic Jewish view on sin seems to subscribe to this approach. The rabbis teach us that we each have two inclinations, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and the yetzer hatov (good inclination). The power to do good or evil lies in our hands. We are fundamentally good people, who are sometimes led astray to do bad things.
The understanding that we get from the Tanakh about sin is, however, very different. As we read the Torah and the rest of Scripture, it is quite discomforting to realize that we are not basically good people who sometimes go astray. We, ourselves, are the problem. Take, for example:
And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:5 JPS)
The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Tehillim/Psalm 14:2–3 JPS)
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
Our very nature is tainted by sin because we are born as the descendants of Adam and Eve, who sold themselves into slavery to sin when they rejected God and followed the serpent’s advice. King David recognized this and exclaimed, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Tehillim/Psalm 51:5 JPS).
Not Very Good
Furthermore, the whole sacrificial system of the Torah which seems so abhorrent to us in the modern world was designed to teach us that we weren’t good—we had to constantly bring sacrifices to God for Him to forgive us so we could draw close to Him. I’m sure the constant sight of dead animals and blood was a wakeup call to any who entertained any thoughts of being fundamentally good.
Even our modern world confirms the truth of God’s understanding of us and sin as shown in the Tanakh. One just needs to read the headlines to realize that the world is a broken place, and it’s not just the fault of a few “bad eggs.” Consider the Shoah: the fact that such utter depravity could take place in the twentieth century in the land of the “Poets and Thinkers” is more proof of the utter corruption of the human race. And whether we like it or not, you and I are included in that.
So, leaven is used by God in the Bible to teach us about sin. It’s beautiful then, that at Passover, we cleanse all the leaven from our home as a symbol of a desire to lead a life that is sin free. And eating the matzah reminds us that God expects us to be holy as He is holy. Perhaps the million-dollar question is not, “Why do we only eat matzah?” but “How does God expect us to be holy and how can we deal with the problem of sin in our lives?”
The Unexpected Answer
Thankfully, Passover provides the answer, and in a place that we would least expect it—in the matzah and in the lamb. We no longer eat lamb at Passover, because the lambs that we used to eat were sacrifices that had to be offered at the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. No Temple, no altar, no Passover lambs. And yet the central part of the very first Passover in Egypt was the lamb. Without the sacrifice of the lamb, without its blood on our doorposts, our firstborn too would have died. The lambs died instead of our firstborn.
Thousands of years later, another Passover lamb would die, so that we could live. The Messiah, Yeshua, like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7), gave his life for us at Passover, so that we can escape the wrath of God at the “day of the Lord” (Joel 2:1–2) and that we can “live life to the full” (John 10:10). More than that, Yeshua died to free us from our corrupt selves and our slavery to sin so that we can be free to live a life of purpose that honors God.
While the rabbis teach that since the Temple was destroyed good works now atone for our sin (see Avot de Rabbi Natan 4), the Torah teaches something very different. In Vayikra/Leviticus 17:11 we read, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life” (17:11 JPS). In other words, our sin led to death—either our death or the death of a substitute, in this case an animal, just like at Passover. God never repealed this commandment and so it still stands today. We believers in Yeshua recognize that the animal sacrifices in the Torah pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of the Messiah, who would take away the sin of the world.
The Messiah Steps In
Sometimes Yeshua is mistakenly portrayed as a Jewish martyr—a teacher who tried to bring about sustainable change but was murdered because he upset the status quo. And yet in the Brit Hadashah (New Testament) we read that Yeshua knew that his calling was to give his life at Passover for us and for all humanity. He knew what was going to happen and he taught his talmidim (disciples) in advance, at his last ever Passover seder.
Picture the scene: excitement and anticipation were written on the faces of those present. All those assembled could feel that something big was going to happen soon. Perhaps Yeshua was really going to challenge the Romans and lift the oppression. And then he did something strange. After the meal, we read that he took the cup, which is traditionally the third cup, the cup of redemption, and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). We then read that he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The bread of affliction, the bread without leaven, became a symbol for the death of the Messiah. But it also became a symbol of our hope. As an early follower of Jesus, Paul, puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, the unleavened Messiah became leaven for us, so that we can become the unleavenedness of God.
Before I came to faith in Yeshua as Messiah, I lived a pretty decent life. Sure, I was mean to people sometimes, didn’t always tell the truth, but for the most part I didn’t do anything really bad. No murders, only a little stealing—nothing major. And yet at one point I realized that even though I hadn’t committed any crimes against the law of the land, I was in major need of God’s forgiveness. I came to understand that I wasn’t holy—quite the opposite in fact. I was a slave to sin, and I needed someone to forgive me and set me free. As Yeshua said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin … if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
The rabbinic Jewish understanding of sin might sound comforting to us, but in reality, it is an empty comfort. For only through the Messiah can we really deal with our sin problem. Paul, again, said it best, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Messiah, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8).
So maybe Passover isn’t as boring as my friend says. And maybe there is something to eating matzah for these eight nights—not to spur us on to try harder not to sin, but as a reminder that someone already took on that sin for us. This Passover, as you purge the leaven from your home, why not ask the Messiah Yeshua to purge it from your heart?