March 29, 2011
“A morbidly obese Ohio man was in the hospital Tuesday after police found him fused to a chair he had not moved from in two years and were forced to cut a hole in the wall of his house just to get him out, WTRF-TV reported. Officers who responded to the scene said that the man’s skin was fused to the fabric of the chair, and that he was sitting in his own feces and urine with maggots visible. One officer said it was the worst thing he had ever responded to. The landlord told WTRF that the man used to be an active person, and said she had no idea how bad his condition had become …” (Excerpted from foxnews.com)
He used to be an active person. Those words reverberate in my head. Obviously he wasn’t like this all of his life. Obviously he once led an active life, and before that he was someone’s child with hopes and dreams just like you and me. Nevertheless, the image of that pure and innocent child slowly being enveloped in rolls of flesh until he’s no longer recognizable evokes a troubling question: How can someone lose himself so completely that he literally begins to fuse with the material that he has ingested and accumulated over the course of his life?
All around the world, Jewish families will begin their Seders by pointing to a piece of matzah and saying: “This is the bread of poverty.” Rabbi Yehudah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague (1520 – 1609), asks why Matzah, the quintessential symbol of freedom, is referred to as the bread of poverty, since we generally do not equate poverty with freedom. He answers that the true definition of a poor person is someone who has nothing but himself. Matzah is therefore called the bread of poverty because it is bread that has been stripped to its essence. It is pure flour and water without the fluff. It possesses nothing but itself.
According to the Maharal, the “poverty” of the Matzah teaches us how to become free. We don’t have to be impoverished in a literal sense, but from time to time we must strip away everything that is not essential to our true identity, so that we can reconnect with our innermost self. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the life that we have created. If we lose sight of who we are, we can never be truly free.
Pesach comes around once a year precisely because it’s so easy for us to lose sight of ourselves. If you ask people who they are, some will tell you where they came from, others will tell you what they have or do, and still others will describe what they think and feel. But none of these things are us. They all can and do change, and yet we wake up every morning with a remarkable sense of continuity. Even the dramatic changes that our bodies go through from birth to death cannot alter our unshakable sense of self. But what exactly is that “self?” If we could peel away the various aspects of our lives like the leaves of an artichoke, what would we find at the very core of our being?
Judaism teaches that we are fundamentally spiritual beings. We are souls, not bodies. But our souls are not monolithic entities either. They are comprised of different levels, each deeper, or more essential than the next. The most external or superficial level of the soul is the life force that animates us and enables us to live and act in the world. Deeper levels enable us to feel, speak and think. But according to our mystical tradition, the deepest and most authentic “source” of the soul – the true core of our being – is our creative will. Our will is what creates our thoughts, feelings and actions. It exists on a higher level than our intellect, which is why it is paradoxically both the most essential and the most elusive aspect of our identity. This is why it’s so easy to lose sight of who we are. The ever-changing, formless source of our creativity is ultimately beyond our ability to define or even grasp with our minds.
Matzah reminds us of the most fundamental aspect of what it means to be free: That at our essence, we are creators, and that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are our creations. Even our sense of identity, or ego, is nothing more than a product of the thinking that we make up about ourselves. As products they may be important aspects of our lives, but we must never allow them to define us to the point where they limit our freedom to choose. We must never forget that we have the ability, at any moment, to create something entirely new, regardless of our past. We must never confuse what we produce with who we are. Because whenever we lose sight of our true nature, we run the very real risk of being trapped, weighed down, and sometimes even crushed, by the overwhelming weight of our own creation.
Wishing you a meaningful and joyful Pesach!