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What’s So Bad About Chametz?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on April 13, 2017)
Topics: Pesach, Torah

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What is so bad about chametz?   On Pesach, not only may we not eat it, we may not derive any benefit from it, and we may not even own it.   And before Pesach we must search it out and destroy it.  What is this all about?

A classic approach is to see chametz as representing the evil inclination.  Just as leaven puffs up the dough, so the evil inclination inflates our sense of ourselves and makes us feel entitled to act as we see fit.  The act of checking for and destroying chametz symbolizes our need to identify and root out the evil inclination from our selves.

The problem with seeing chametz in this light is that it ignores the fact that during the rest of the year we do not see chametz as a negative at all.  Not only is it not forbidden, but it is even used to do many mitzvot – we use two loaves of bread on Shabbat, bread is the staple of any festive or mitzvah-related meal, and challah is taken from the dough of bread making.  It seems that there is a lot of good in hametz as well.

Sefat Emet deals with this tension, and in so doing compares Pesach’s relationship to the rest of the year to Shabbat’s relationship to the rest of the week.  For Sefat Emet, each person has a “point” within his or her soul that is the essence of that person.  During the week, we spread out and engage the larger world, directing ourselves towards our ambitions, our relationships with other people, our desire to build, to acquire and to transform.  All of this can be very good; it can be the doing of God’s work. Indeed, we are commanded that “Six days you shall work.”  But it risks our losing our sense of what really matters to us. The mitzvah to “remember the Shabbat day” is a mitzvah to use the Shabbat day to free ourselves from this larger worldly engagement and to remember who we truly are:

On Shabbat this inner point is revealed in the souls of the Jewish People, therefore it must be guarded so that this inner point does not spread out into a place of forgetfulness…

This then is the twin symbolism of chametz and matzah.  Matzah is simple – just flour and water, nothing else.  It is this inner point of our souls, who we are when everything else is stripped away. Chametz is what happens when we engage the larger world: we spread out, exerting our influence, and changing and even growing in the process.  If we bring our true essence into this engagement, then we will be doing God’s work.  But often, this engagement can distract us and make us lose sight of who we truly are.  Pesach, the holiday of matzah, is the time for us to reconnect to this inner self, but in a way that is different from how we do it on Shabbat.

Here, the key is not full disengagement from the larger world, but the telling of a story.  On Pesach, the mitzvah of memory is the mitzvah to tell the story of the Exodus, to remember who we as a people are.  And it is a mitzvah to ask open-ended questions, questions of meaning and purpose, to engage in the Biblical verses and to expound upon them, in short, to retell the story from our own personal perspective.  It is the resituating of ourselves into our national narrative and to rediscover our own personal narrative in the context of this larger national one.  It is to rediscover our essence.

These two forms of rediscovering our inner selves can be seen as expressions of two types of freedom.  In his article “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin describes two types of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty, or what we might call “freedom from” and “freedom to”. Negative liberty is the freedom from constraint, whereas positive liberty is having the power and resources to act to fulfill one’s own potential, and often requires a level of education, self-discipline, and certain underlying values.  Both of these freedoms are essential: without freedom from, our ability to act, move, speak, work and operate freely in this world will be constrained and possibly controlled; but even when we are fully free to act as we see fit, if we lack the “freedom to,” if we have no sense of direction or purpose, then we won’t know what we are acting for.

These two freedoms are also the foundation upon which this country – the United States – was built.  The unalienable rights of “Life and Liberty,” represent the freedom from government power and control over our lives and actions, whereas the right of “the Pursuit of Happiness,” is the freedom that each one of us has to pursue the good life as we best see fit and as we best understand it to be.

In the current political climate, many people believe that their basic rights, their freedoms from constrain and control, are being challenged, and they are fighting hard to protect them.  Protecting our basic rights is fundamental.  Without “freedom from” there can be no “freedom for.”  But when we lack a sense of shared goal and vision, a sense of purpose that we can all as a country agree upon, then a sole focus on rights can descend into identity politics and become divisive.  We Americans must work to defend our rights and to construct a national narrative, to protect our “freedoms from” while pursuing our “freedom to.”

We, the People of Israel, at the time of the Exodus experienced both types of freedom: we were freed from enslavement to Pharaoh for the purpose of serving God: “Send my People out that they may worship me in the Wilderness,” (Shemot 7:16) or as we say in the Hagadah, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now God has drawn us near to serve Him.”

On Shabbat and Pesach we preserve and remember these two freedoms. Shabbat, zekher li’yitziat Mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus, is a day of rest, a day when we are fully free from all the demands, controls and constraints of the larger world. It is a freeing of slaves, employees and animals from the control that their master has over their time and their labor; it is the freeing of a person from his or her own work, from being enslaved to and defined by one’s job.  But what a person is to do on this day of rest is not so clear: should one spend the time resting and restoring one’s strength, being present and connecting to family and friends, or going to shul, studying Torah and connecting to God?  What to do with this “freedom from” is our choice.  Shabbat gives us the quiet and the space to reflect and reconnect to our inner point.  If we choose to do so, we can begin to direct our lives accordingly, shaping our work during the other six days of the week in accordance with our values and our goals.

But if we are free to choose, we might also choose to give up this choice, to live our lives without asking ourselves hard questions.  On Shabbat, we might choose to rest without reflecting; to observe the shamor without the zakhor.  Pesach forces us to ask the question of “why?”.  It forces us to address remember not only that we are free, but to ask free for what purpose? Free to do what?  And it demands that we ask these questions not only on a personal level, but in the context of our family, our nation, and our history,   so that we can discover how and what that means to us personally, to our own sense of self, to our own talents, to the inner point that we discover on the seder night and that we strive to rediscover each and every Shabbat.

In contemporary times, in addition to our work and engagement with the world, there is another thing that often distracts us from our larger sense of meaning and purpose: electronics and, in particular, social media.  These, like hametz, spread us out, they pull us into many stimulating discussions and exchanges.  These can be worthwhile and a good thing, they can inform and enrich us, and they can help us mobilize, inspire and educate others.  But they can also so stimulate us that we forget to ask “why”, that we lose sight of who we are and what really matters.  If these engagements are distracting, ephemeral and fleeting, then the seder is a time of presence, reflection and ultimate meaning.  The seder is a time not of hametz but of matzah.

By telling our story over the matzah, the lechem she’onim alav dvarim harbeh, the bread over which we have many discussions, we bring our inner, simple selves into the story and we use the larger story to help us rediscover our sense of self.  It is then after Pesach when we must take this story and this sense of who we are into the larger world and into the rest of the year.  When we, like the chametz, spread out and expand, let us always do see remembering who we are, what we learned last Pesach, and what story we will tell at the Seder in the coming year.