Ask a Jew why eating chametz is forbidden at Pesach and the answer given will be that, when the Israelites left Egypt, they were in such a hurry they had to bake their dough before it had time to rise. In other words, it was a spontaneous act. There are a few problems with this:
1. It is factually inaccurate. Two weeks before they leave Egypt, God tells Moses to command the Israelites: “On the 14th day of the first month, in the evening, you will eat matzot, until the 21st day. For seven days, leaven may not be found in your houses, for anyone who eats chametz, that soul shall be cut off from the assembly of Israel…You shall not eat any leavening; in all your dwellings shall you eat matzot.” (Exodus 12: 19, 20). Two weeks’ notice. Anything but spontaneous.
2. On the night of the Exodus, God warns the Israelites: “Let no man go out of the door of his house till morning” (Exodus 12:22). God calls that night a Leyl Shimmurim — a night of guarding, or watching. The Israelites clearly had a whole night to bake perfect bread.
3. The punishment for eating chametz during Pesach is karet — at best, being cut off, excluded, from the community of Israel — at worst, total extirpation of the soul, in this world and the next.
Karet is surely too severe a penalty for failure to mark an historic event. There are no other examples in the Torah of such severity for breaking a similar commandment. Take, for example, Succot. We are commanded to live in a succah for seven days to recall the Exodus. Yet, what is the punishment for not doing so? A forfeiture of a mitzvah indubitably, but no way karet. What is so evil, then, about eating chametz in Pesach?
To try to answer this, we need to look at how the Israelites conducted themselves in Egypt. They had become deeply immersed in Egyptian idolatry and immorality. They had degenerated to the 49th level of impurity, one level short of becoming irredeemable. (Zohar Hadash, Yitro). They were on the brink of being culturally obliterated and, like other ancient civilisations, being consigned to the British Museum.
By extricating the Israelites from Egypt, God now had a nation ready to receive His Torah and its mitzvot, the keeping of which has ensured our survival. These mitzvot are as relevant now, as they were then; they are the blueprint of all righteous societies. Civilisations not founded on these laws have all been eradicated. That would have been the Israelites’ lot. They were on the brink of assimilation. God had to act. And act He did. Within a year, and ten plagues later, the Israelites were out. They were damaged goods and, to God’s disappointment, as the cliché goes, He could not take Egypt out of that generation.
But the new generation was largely immune and have remained, to this day. King Solomon compares the Torah to a Tree of Life — an Etz Chaim — and that is exactly what it has been for us Jews, who have survived against all odds.
Pesach, therefore, celebrates not just the physical redemption of the Israelites, but also the spiritual — a historic, crucial and vital event in our history. And how was God going to ensure that this momentous salvation was etched on our brains for all time? By commanding us to eat matzah and not chametz.
Baked within 18 minutes, dough comes out as matzah and is kosher for Passover. One second later, it becomes chametz — and totally non kosher. That moment of near-fermentation reflects the teetering condition of the Israelites. One minute they are still Israelites, the next they are totally Egyptian.
This is why we are commanded: “And you shall guard this matter as a decree for you and your children, forever” (Exodus 12:24). What is “this matter”? The fact that, had God not acted, we would not have survived. That is, possibly, what God meant when He said that that night of the Exodus was a night of guarding; it was a night when God guarded the Israelites from total extinction.
This is perhaps the reason why eating chametz in Pesach is so serious. A person committing that offence does not seem to care to recall that our nation came so close to annihilation.
We eat matzah at Pesach not because the Israelites were in a hurry to leave Egypt. They were serenely and obliviously marching towards oblivion.
But, one might ask, why then does the Torah say in Deutoronomy: “Do not eat chametz... because you departed Egypt in haste”? (16:3). The Israelites departed Egypt in haste all right, except it was not their haste. It was God’s.