Growing up, Pesach (Passover) was always a big deal– preparing our home and our meals and our spirits for the holiday to an almost obsessive degree. There are so many little details to the holiday, but once guests started to arrive and the Seder began, there was always an incredible feeling in the air, one that tends to frequent holidays that are enriched by meaning and community.
My dad was a Rabbi and Chaplain in the Navy, so we celebrated Pesach all over the world, including Japan and Italy. Whenever possible, he would invite military personnel to the Seder, as well as friends and family. My dad grew up in a kosher home and attended services, but was not fully observant until he started studying in yeshiva during his second year in Jerusalem. He also met my mom a”h and her Yemenite family at that time and took on some of their customs– not the thick, soft Yemenite matzah that looks like a pita or the kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes), but he would allow kitniyot at the table to show that it is kosher and part of the tradition to some, even though he personally didn’t eat it.
In college, and later when I moved to Crown Heights with my ex, I was exposed to Chabad’s Pesach customs mostly through family. To them, it’s important not to eat any gebrokts (Yiddish for matzah that has come in contact with water) during the seven days of Pesach. So I would have to sneakily dip my matzah into the chicken soup bowl, because that was always one of my favorite things to do. Incidentally, my mom’s Yemenite tradition is to wrap the matzah in a wet cloth and always eat it wet and soft.
It’s only recently that I really began to delve into the meaning of Pesach. I’ve realized that the Seder is not just a historical retelling of the Jews exodus from Egypt, but an actual manifestation, an opportunity for each of us to leave our own Egypts. Through this ritual, we’re meant to free ourselves, to ‘burn’ the chametz that holds us back from seeing and living in full truth (emet), from being fully connected to the Infinite Light (ohr ha-kodesh).
This week’s parsha, Tzav, continues discussing the intricacies of the Temple sacrifices and briefly touches on chametz (leavened bread). Since this Shabbat leads into Pesach, we can draw connections between the weekly portion from Leviticus and the larger Jewish story of moving from spiritual constriction into spiritual freedom.
In this week’s portion, G-d provides the instructions for the priestly meal offerings, sacrifices that did not involve animals. Moses is told that “[the meal offering] shall not be baked leavened (lo teahfeh chametz). I have presented it as their share from My fire-offerings” (Leviticus 6:10). In Exodus, when G-d gives the commandments of Pesach, it’s written, “No leaven (chametz) shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is chametz, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country” (12:19).
Chametz literally means leavening, that which causes bread to rise. Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) teach us that this chametz represents arrogance and the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. In Talmud Berachot, 17a, the yetzer hara is depicted as the “yeast in the dough”, puffing up a person’s pride. The Talmud explains that the portion of the meal-offering eaten by the priest (kohen) is not allowed to be offered on the altar (mizbeach). A priest is dependent on Divine Gifts for their bread, so they cannot succumb to haughtiness or arrogance. But lay people have to work for their bread (with “sweat of their brow” after Adam’s sin). The more wealth they accumulate, the more the evil inclination manifests in the form of ego, haughtiness, and arrogance. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov talks about taavat mammon (the lust for money), explaining that it is most apparent in a person who makes it his life’s mission to amass great wealth (LM I, 23:1). Lacking emunah, faith in Hashem, he instead puts his trust (bitachon) in money, mistakenly believing that the more he has, the more secure and fulfilling his life will be, and that he is in complete control of his destiny.
As you may know, Jews are prohibited from consuming chametz on the seven days of Pesach. But we are also obligated to search our homes in preparation for the holiday, collecting any leftover scraps and crumbs of chametz that might be hidden, and then to ritually burn them before Pesach begins. This process is called biyur.
This ritual primes us to spend Pesach ridding ourselves of our spiritual chametz — our arrogance and pride. It’s important to face ourselves honestly as we do this, and, like the practice of biyur, there comes a time to let our egos “burn”, to not let them hold us back any longer, so that we can strengthen our emunah (faith) and connect to something higher than ourselves.
The Yehi Ratzon that we recite after the burning of chametz reads:
Just as I have eliminated the chametz from my house and from all I possess, may it be desirable before You, the One Who Brings Being into Being, God to me and God to my fathers, to rid me of the Evil Inclination. May I be privileged enough to have that urge burnt from the depths of my heart until it is no more than smoke. And so, too, may You, like the very wind of destruction, rid by fire all wickedness from the land.
Incidentally, the search (bedikat) for the chametz may not be done by sunlight or moonlight, and is only valid by the light of a candle. It is the same with the search within our own yetzer hara— it can only be done with the light of the neshamah (soul) which is called ner (candle). As it says in Proverbs, “the candle of Hashem is the soul of man, which searches the chambers of one’s inner being.” (20:27).
Matzah– the central symbol of Pesach — is the antithesis of chametz. It is known as lechem oni, the bread of poverty and affliction (Deuteronomy, Rashi 16:3). Matzah signifies the humility that comes with poverty, and so the mitzvah (obligation) to eat matzah can only truly be fulfilled if it is eaten with humility. The matzah that the Israelites ate in Egypt was lechem oni, and so, too, the matzah that we eat over Pesach reminds us to be humble– to bitul hayesh, to negate and nullify all traces of ego and self-centeredness, to transcend the illusion of self.
It’s no coincidence that matzah (מַצָּה) and chametz (חָמֵץ) are both composed of the same letters. The only difference is that matzah is spelled with a hey (ה) and chametz with a chet (ח). We see that the letter chet (ח) is completely closed from three sides, symbolizing that “sin crouches at the entrance” (Genesis 4:7), while the hey (ה) has an opening on top, which means there is always an opening above, indicating the possibility to return to the Light. As our Sages say, “‘Open for Me as little as the eye of the needle, and I will open for you like the entrance to a hall.’ Rebbe Nachman teaches that each and every person, even the most wicked, must find the one good point in themselves, and that one point, however small, can bring them to merit in Goodness itself. As we see in Talmud Kiddushin, just one single thought of self-improvement can change someone from a wicked person into a righteous person” (49b).
In the famous Four Questions that we recite as part of the Pesach Haggadah, we ask, if on all other nights we are allowed to eat chametz and matzah, why during this time do we only eat matzah? Later in the Haggadah we’re given the answer, “Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” Here we see that Matzah is a form of heavenly bread and that, at this time, we partake from His bread at His table, as we relive the story of Exodus, of our redemption from restriction and concealment in Egypt, to revelation and freedom through Hashem’s light.
We all know the story of Adam eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Etz HaDa’at). The gematria (the sum of the numerical value of the letters) of chametz and se’or (leavening) is 639, the same gematria of “Etz HaDa’at”. So, on a mystical level, the “fruit” that Adam was restricted from eating was “leavened bread”. This was humanity’s first taste of godlessness, and the birth of our impaired awareness and evil inclination. Matzah, in contrast, is the unleavened bread that symbolizes the perfection and redemption of Da’at, using our knowledge and awareness to remember and honor that G-d is all. As it is written in Likutei Moharan (I, 33:4), we reach Hashem only with Intimate Knowledge, with Experience, with Heart and with Emotion.
During Pesach, we retell the story of Egypt to relive it as if we too are being freed and to remember that we too were once “strangers in a strange land”. And though we tell the story of our enslavement, we also remember the importance of not enslaving the stranger, the other, and perhaps most importantly, not becoming enslaved to ourselves, to our illusory identities. As it is written, “Do not hate an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). This verse emphasizes that we should not even hate our enemy, even those that enslaved us, because the only way to be truly free is to be free from hate. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, “If they continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind— and chains of the mind are the most constricting of all.”
The French dramatist Jean Anouilh wrote, “Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless . . . In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility . . . Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope.” Pesach celebrates the Jews leaving their tragic circumstance in Egypt and the hope that redemption and salvation brought into the Promised Land. We end the Haggadah in hope, in prayer, in unison, with the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem”. As Ishay Ribo in his song Leshuv Habaita sings, “The time has come to wake up, to leave everything, to overcome, and to return home.”
As physical creatures, we can’t fully defeat the forces of fate, but our souls, the parts of us that are infinite, can connect beyond the finite world. When we choose to burn our chametz— the false sustenance of pride and devotion to material gain– we can surpass our limitations and connect to the true and everlasting freedom that can only be found in the Light of the Infinite.