Sunday, March 25, 2012

#BlogExodus, Nisan 2; Chametz - the good & bad of leavened bread

This is day 2 of #BlogExodus, and our theme is Chametz - the term that refers to leavened foods - the opposite of matzah (unleavened bread).  The Torah commands that, as part of our observance of Passover, we remove all chametz from our homes and refrain from eating it for the duration of the festival.

As is the case with so many of our Jewish rituals, we have many layers of interpretation that we can delve into from across the centuries to explore the practical and symbolic meaning of chametz and the importance of its absence during this holiday.

In the symbolic arena, many have referred to chametz as a sign of puffed-up ego, or yetzer hara  more generally.  Yetzer hara  is usually translated as 'evil inclination', but that gives a strong impression of something negative that we must rid ourselves of.  The problem is, we are allowed to eat chametz for the other 358 days of the year.  So it doesn't make a lot of sense, even symbolically, to assign chametz a meaning that is 'bad.'  In some of the earliest collections of rabbinic midrashim we find acknowledgments that yetzer hara is better understood as will or desire.  We all need it in healthy doses - without it we would not create anything, make love, enjoy food etc. But, as with all things in life, we need balance - too much yetzer hara isn't good for us or for our society.  Just as too much leavening makes for a sour taste when we bake bread, so too much yetzer hara turns everything we do sour.

Nevertheless, why do we have to rid ourselves of it completely for Pesach?  On a less symbolic level, some have suggested that, like the unleavened cakes that were part of the Temple offerings in ancient times, each of us turn our homes into mini-Temples.  We don't do the Pascal lamb sacrifice at the Temple any more, but our homes have become the new location for the rituals that we do to celebrate the holiday. So our homes are now sanctuaries for increasing our awareness of God's presence, just as the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was where everyone was expected to go for the major holidays, because the intensity of God-awareness was greatest when everyone focused on one special place.

Back to the symbolic level again, I recognize that full freedom comes not only from the social and political environment we might live in, but from an inner state that requires trust and faith, and which I am more aware of when I participate in rituals or actions that make me more God-conscious.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that it was not that the unleavened bread was holy and the leavened bread was absent of holiness; rather that the puffed-up nature of leavened bread represented a world where the inner essential holy sparks of all things can be disguised by the complexities of the material world.  That is the world that we live in.  But perhaps we become more adept at navigating our way through that material world if we can take a week to strip away some of the extraneous things, simplify our subsistence, and look for the inner essence within ourselves and others.

In today's world, we often lose sight of the opportunity that Pesach gives us to simplify - we go overboard with seeking out 'kosher for Pesach' foods that we truly do not need to sustain us for 1 week.  How ironic that we have symbolically turned an entire category of 'appropriate for Pesach' foods into a kind of spiritual chametz - it gets in the way of the task that Pesach is designed to help us do spiritually.

So this year, perhaps take more time to think of the symbolic and spiritual meaning of chametz and use this as a guide to figure out what to throw out and what to buy in preparing for the Passover holiday.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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