While there can be no doubt about the centrality of unleavened bread to Passover, its meaning is not at all straightforward. The Torah itself calls it the “bread of affliction,” but elsewhere implies that it is in fact a symbol of freedom. While some rabbis have claimed this paradox is fundamental to understanding matzah, others, writes Shalom Carmy, see no paradox at all:
Rabbi Judah Loew, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague, known by the acronym Maharal, . . . rejected the idea that matzah can represent two conflicting themes, namely, liberation and enslavement. . . . To the [Maharal], matzah is the simplest kind of bread. Quickly prepared, it is dough and water and nothing else. In the Maharal’s opinion, nothing is more emblematic of freedom than a simple food of this sort, the very opposite of luxury and superfluity, which so easily weighs us down with the cares of this world.
[W]hen I taught a course on the Maharal last spring, I was in for a surprise. His claim that matzah, precisely as the food of simplicity, is the quintessential bread of freedom provoked vigorous resistance among my students. In their minds, freedom is predicated on not being bound by material constraints. Necessity is the great enemy of doing as one pleases. It is not hard to recognize that the life of a poor but saintly person is morally more authentic and religiously richer than that of those who enjoy greater material resources. Yet doesn’t poverty enslave one to exigency and dearth? How can a life held hostage to need possibly be freer than one that has the option of material comfort?
I demurred. Maharal is not focusing on the desperation of penury—matzah, for all its lack of culinary sophistication, is physically nourishing. What he stresses is that life conducted with simplicity is unencumbered by preoccupation with material acquisition and consumption. In that sense, it enables and expresses a freedom not available to those possessed by their wealth and possessions.
Can this awareness help us move toward the kind of unencumbered existence that Maharal associates with the liberation of Exodus? . . . The story of Passover is not only about God redeeming our ancestors from Egyptian slavery. He redeemed their descendants along with them. The challenge of spiritual and moral liberation confronts us today no less than then. The simplicity of the unleavened bread can be a starting point, a powerful reminder that what we need is often far less than what we want. It is a recognition that frees us to enter into what God gives.