The Torah calls Passover the “Feast of Matzot” and it commands us both to eat matzot on the first night and to not eat chametz, or leavened bread, for the entire 7 day holiday. The Torah’s prohibitions regarding chametz seem inordinately severe: the punishment for eating it is greater than for eating most prohibited foods. Moreover, not only must we refrain from eating it, we cannot derive benefit from it either. If that were not enough, the Torah commands that we do not own chametz or have it in our possession in any way over the entire holiday of Passover. How are we to understand this extremist attitude towards chametz?
Many commentators explain that, perhaps ironically, because chametz is permitted during the rest of the year, it is so severely prohibited on Passover. When we see a piece of pork, we know – “that’s treif” “its off-bounds” “stay away.” However, when we see a piece of bread on Passover, we don’t think of it as a forbidden object; we may even put it in our mouths before we remind ourselves that it is Passover and we are not allowed to eat it. To prevent this from happening, the Torah intensifies the prohibitions of chametz and, as a result, we will hopefully increase our vigilance regarding this prohibition.
I believe that there is a very important lesson that we can learn from this. There are aspects of our cultural and intellectual environment that we know are treif, we know are foreign and corrosive to Jewish values and a Jewish way of life. These blatant threats are relatively easy to avoid. However, there are elements of our culture that might look kosher, that we might “pop in our mouths” before realizing we’ve ingested something harmful. These hidden threats can be more dangerous precisely because they are hidden, because they look kosher, and we must be extra vigilant in avoiding them.
The story, however, does not end there. The logical culmination of such vigilance is total rejection. If there are such threats lurking around in the shadows, why not stay out of the way altogether and reject contemporary culture? We all know that it is easier to quit cigarettes than to diet: when you quit cigarettes, you can just avoid them altogether, but when you diet, you can’t stop eating. Moderation and vigilance are difficult, so why not just opt for total avoidance and rejection?
The answer is to be found in the other commandment of Passover: the mitzvah to eat matzah. The Talmud explains that matzah is made from the exact same ingredients as chametz – flour and water. There is only one difference between the two: vigilance. Matzah has been carefully watched to ensure that it is baked before it begins to rise, while chametz has been unattended and rises naturally. The Torah is actually making Passover doubly difficult for us. Not only can we not have chametz, we have to get involved in matzah! Why not just avoid flour and water altogether for the entire holiday?
The Torah, however, does not allow us such an easy out; it does not allow us to take the route of rejection. If we avoid and reject, we will be sure we aren’t eating chametz but we will be just as certain that we aren’t eating matzah. We can get through life knowing for certain that no chametz ever passed our lips, but we will know just as certainly that the mitzvah of matzah was never fulfilled. If we close ourselves off from our intellectual and cultural environment, we won’t be corrupted, but we just as equally won’t be enriched, and just as equally we won’t make a contribution. We must rather engage the larger world, seize all opportunities to perform mitzvot, while at the same time maintaining the proper care and vigilance. It is through this type of an engagement that we will serve God, and serve God maximally.