The famous first Mishna of Masekhet Pesachim (2a) instructs that one is obligated to search his home for chametz on “or le-arba’a asar,” which the Gemara concludes refers to the night of the 14th of Nissan. Although the word “or” means “light,” such that the term “or le-arba’a asar” would seem to indicate that the search should take place during the day of the 14th, the Gemara clarifies that the Mishna refers to the nighttime. The Mishna uses the word “or,” the Gemara explains, as a “lishna ma’alya” – a more refined way of speaking of the dark, nighttime hours.
Rav Natan of Breslav (Likutei Halakhot – Netilat Yadayim Shacharit, 2) finds in the Mishna’s use of the word “or” in this context an allusion to one of the important themes of Pesach – faith in divine providence, in God’s governance of the world. Chametz, Rav Natan writes, is a symbol of the way the natural order conceals the hand of providence, giving the appearance that the world runs on its own, randomly, and is not governed. Ridding our homes of chametz thus represents ridding our minds of this belief, and reinforcing our faith in God. For this reason, Rav Natan suggests, the Mishna refers to the night of bedikat chametz as “or” – “light.” As we set out to eliminate the chametz from our homes, our aim is to kindle the “light” of faith. Without faith in providence, the world might seem “dark” – gloomy, chaotic and frightening. But if we believe that the world is governed by the Almighty, we live with “light,” with the joy and confidence of knowing that we are under the control of a kind, compassionate Creator.
Developing this point one step further, leavened bread is fully processed, and thus hardly recognizable as the product of its original ingredients (flour and water). It signifies human creativity and ingenuity, the world which has been developed by mankind, which has the effect of concealing the hand of providence. Matza, the simplest combination of flour and water, is far closer to its roots and origins than leavened products, and it thus represents the hidden hand of God which is the true source and cause of all that transpires.
Shortly before the Exodus, God presented to Moshe a series of commands to relay to Benei Yisrael in preparation for the night of the final plague, when they would be set free (Shemot 12). Notably, these commands do not include any practical measures to be taken by Benei Yisrael to secure their freedom. The instructions all revolved around the pesach sacrifice which the people were to offer, and had nothing to do with the Egyptians. In fact, Benei Yisrael were specifically commanded to remain in their homes throughout the night (Shemot 12:22) – underscoring the fact that they played absolutely no role in defeating the Egyptians. Their involvement in the Exodus process was strictly spiritual – displaying their commitment to God by offering the sacrifice in compliance with His commands (which included circumcision, formally entering into an eternal covenant with God). They were not involved in the process of attaining freedom in any pragmatic way. This passivity is reflected by the matza, the crudest, least developed baked product, which represents the absence of human creativity and innovation. (This symbolic understanding of matza is developed by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in several contexts.)
Generally, of course, we are to combine resolute faith in God with effort and ingenuity. Throughout the year, we are not to remain “in our homes,” passively depending on God’s grace and assistance to protect us and care for us. We are to put in the effort needed to secure our needs and ensure our safety, and trust that the success of our efforts ultimately depends on the Almighty. Pesach, however, is the time when we must eliminate the “chametz,” look beyond our initiative and innovation, and recognize our absolute dependence on God. Whereas at other times we focus our minds both on our proactive efforts as well as on our faith in God, on Pesach we are to focus exclusively on the hand of providence which is the true cause of all that happens here in our world