At this time of year, hametz tends to get a bad rap. In Hassidic literature it symbolizes the yetzer ha’ra, the evil inclination. The only problem with this symbolism is that for the other 51 weeks of the year we have no problem with hametz; we actually enjoy it a great deal. How then are we to see it as evil for this one week?
Sefat Emet (Pesach, 5658) offers a different symbolism. He starts by noting a number of parallels between Pesach and Shabbat. Pesach itself is called Shabbat ( Vayikra 23:15), and just as the Torah commands us to remember (zakhor) and guard (shamor) Shabbat, it commands us to remember the day of the Exodus and guard the observance of this day. For Sefat Emet, zakhor here refers not to an act of remembering, but to that part of our soul within each of us that is who we truly are, the part that is never fully forgotten, even if over time we lose sight of it and it gets buried deep down within us. The mitzvah on Shabbat is to preserve (shamor) this part of our soul, to get back in touch with our inner essence. In his words:
Zakhor is the inner point that has no forgetting. And on Shabbat this 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.
In the busyness of the week, with the demands of job, family, social and business obligations, it is easy to spend our time running all over the place, spreading ourselves far and wide, and forgetting what all the running is really about. What are we pursuing? What are we truly trying to accomplish with our lives?
This concern is all the more relevant nowadays in our age of social media, smartphones and tablets. We spend so much of our time distracting ourselves that it is rare that we allow ourselves to turn off our phones, put them away, and be fully present with another person, let alone with ourselves and our own thoughts. We “spread to a place of forgetfulness.” Shabbat gives us the opportunity to be fully present. It gives us the time and the quiet to think and reflect, to ask ourselves who we are and what we really care about. This is both true on the religious level and also on the personal level. What are the things that truly make us happy and give us satisfaction? What are our unique talents and how should we best be using them? Some people wake up twenty years into a career and realize that they should have been doing something totally different with their lives. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to connect to that inner essence in ourselves and to course correct now, rather than 20 years from now.
Just as this is true about Shabbat, continues Sefat Emet, it is also true about Pesach:
That inner point is called lehem oni (poor person’s bread), because it is without any spreading. Matzah is just the dough itself [lit. “the essence of the dough”], not having changed through fermentation. Every Jew has this inner point as a gift from God.
Matzah represents the simple, inner essence of the person; hametz is what happens when that essence undergoes change and fermentation, when it spreads out and expands beyond its original state.
This explanation redeems hametz. Hametz is not evil. Spreading out is not necessarily a bad thing. We rest on Shabbat, but during the rest of the week, we engage the larger world, we spread out. We eat matzah on Pesah, but we eat hametz during the rest of the year. It is how we spread out that matters:
In truth, a person must spread out from that point and to draw all actions after it. This is the “fixing” [the job] of all the other days of the year, according to what a person merits, for better or worse.
The point of Shabbat and of Pesach is to get back in touch with that essence. If we do so, then we can bring that deeper understanding of ourselves into the larger world. Our spreading out will be an expansion of who we truly are. It will bring the sanctity of Shabbat into the rest of the week. But if we do not properly connect to the zakhor of Shabbat and Pesach, then the spreading out will be the opposite – a distancing and distracting of ourselves from ourselves.
Sefat Emet’s explanation resonates deeply when it comes to our experience of Shabbat. But how does it fit for Pesah? While symbolically the searching for and destroying of hametz on Pesah can represent a process of removing those external contaminants and getting back in touch with our essence, the actual experience of Pesach, and the weeks leading up to it, are anything but the quiet reflective time of Shabbat. How, experientially, does this act of zakhor happen?
I would argue that it occurs on the seder night when we tell the story of yitziat mitzrayim. The telling of the story is the fulfilment of the mitzvah of zakhor, to remember the exodus this night. It also is a mitzvah that is intimately connected to the matzah. Matzah is lehem oni, a poor person’s bread or, as the Gemara explains, lehem she’onim alav devarim harbeh, bread over which many things are recited. Or, as the haggadah puts it, we know that there is a mitzvah to tell the story on the night of the seder because “I only said ‘on account of this’ when matzah and maror are placed in front of you.”
On Pesach we connect to our true selves not through quiet self-reflection, but through the telling of a story. The mitzvah is not just to tell the story of the exodus, but to be doresh, to re-tell it, to situate ourselves in the story. “In every generation a person must see herself as if she went out of Egypt.” The way we tell the story shapes how we understand our place in the world. Where did we come from? What is the point of what we are doing now? Where are we going?
There are many different ways that this story can be told. “From where does the story start? Rav said: Our forefathers were idol worshippers. Shmuel said: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” (Pesahim 116a). We can tell a story of how the foundational Jewish experience is one of having been slaves and having been freed, how historically Jews have always been on the forefront of social justice movements and fighting for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and how our mission today is to fight for social justice and tikkun olam. Or we can tell a different story. How the foundational Jewish experience was the Divine miracles and redemption, which demonstrated to all people that there exists a single, ethical God who transcends the natural world, how throughout history we have been defined by our rejection of the idolatry and our steadfast commitment to Torah and mitzvot, and how our mission is to continue to live a life faithful to God and – if we choose to turn this story outward – to bring Torah values into the larger world and make the world a more Godly place. Not just tikkun olam, but li’taken olam bi’malkhut Shadai.
The zakhor of Pesach allows us to connect to not just who we are as individuals, but who we are as a people. On this day we became a People, and on this day we ask ourselves what is our national story, why did God take us out of Egypt? Where did we – the Jewish People – come from and what are we here to accomplish in our lives, individually and collectively?
If we focus on truly telling the story this night, truly connecting to the zakhor of the evening, then we will know how to best direct our efforts during the rest of the year. Our spreading out will be good hametz, it will be an expansion of our essence, it will be bringing us closer to a redeemed world. But if we never tell the story that needs to be told, then all our running around will just be so much busyness and distraction. If we don’t know where we are going, we can be pretty sure we aren’t going to get there.
So come each Shabbat, let us treasure the blessing of freedom from the hubbub of the world, the ability to be present with others and with ourselves. Let us use that time to connect to who we really are, our inner essence, and direct our activities accordingly. And this Pesach, let us really tell the story. Let us tell ourselves, our families, our communities, how we understand what it – Judaism, God, our place in the world – is really about. Where do we come from, where are we going? Let us begin to shape our identity as a community to be one that is not just committed to Torah and mitzvot, but one that has left Egypt in order to travel to the Promised Land.
Hag Kasher vi’Samayach!