Two of the central mitzvot of Pesach have to do with eating. Specifically, with bread, that foodstuff which, conventional wisdom has it, is the very staff of life. One mitzvah is to eat matzah, unleavened bread, in remembrance of the waybread we baked in haste for our journey out of Mitzrayim. Another mitzvah is to eschew chametz, leavened bread, during the week of Pesach.
Over time, our interpretations of these mitzvot have become elaborate and detailed. There are many places you can turn to find explanations of what, exactly, constitutes hametz in the traditional rabbinic understanding, and of how you would go about removing the hametz from your home according to traditional practice.
But every year, it seems, I hear from someone for whom these practices bring not spiritual satisfaction but anxiety and constriction. Maybe you already struggle with issues of control and consumption. Maybe you feel buried by the details and fear that you can't possibly live up to these ideals. Maybe the notion of inspecting food labels for a trace of a product made out of a leaven-able grain feels unhealthily compulsive to you.
I don't believe that Pesach is an all-or-nothing game. There's room for gradations of practice. For God's sake (and I mean that quite literally!) don't fall into the trap of figuring that if you can't observe the leaven-related mitzvot in a perfect and completely traditional way, you can't observe them at all.
The first mitzvah, that of eating matzah at seder, is a simple one and easy to fulfil. So nu, buy a box of matzah. Or bake your own. (If you're gluten-intolerant, there exist a variety of gluten-free matzot. Some would argue that gluten-free matzah isn't kosher for a seder, though I'm not in that camp; for me, what matters is that one eat matzah mindfully at seder. I would rather see you have a meaningful experience of the mitzvah than skip it because doing it would make you sick. But if you're going to be machmir about it, there's spelt matzah, which I'm reliably informed really is the bread of affliction.)
And as for eschewing hametz, try this on: just give up bread for the week. Give up leavened bread. No bread, no yeasted sweet rolls, no bagels. Just that. And every time you think, "hm, I should have a piece of toast for breakfast," or "I'd like a sandwich on a hard roll" or "I want baguette with this soup," you'll catch yourself, and remember that it's Pesach, and remember that this week we eat in a different and more mindful way.
This is markedly less stringent than the traditional practice of ridding one's home of, and avoiding, all foods made with leaven-able grains. (And I'm not even getting into the question of whether or how you kasher your kitchen or sell your hametz.) But it serves the purpose, it does the spiritual work, which I believe the thicket of traditional practices intends to do. When we take on mitzvot, we open ourselves to the possibility of spiritual transformation. What might be transformed in you if you went the week of Pesach without eating leaven? You won't know until you try it.
In one Hasidic interpretation, hametz represents ego: that which puffs us up. Ego is an important ingredient in the human psyche; in order to be healthy, one needs ego! But an overabundance of ego can be unhealthy. So we devise spiritual practices to help us keep ego in check. During this one week of the year, we give up leavened bread, and in so doing, we remind ourselves to relinquish the puffery of ego, of overexalted self-importance.
During this one week of the year, we eat matzah instead of leavened breadstuffs. We remember the Exodus from Egypt; we remember that in every generation, we see ourselves as though we had personally experienced that liberation. We eat the humble waybread of the traveler, reminding us that sometimes we need to leap toward a new future even if that means baking flatbread in haste so we can (physically and spiritually) get moving.
It's pretty cool that we can compress all of that spiritual teaching into simply going a week without eating leavened bread.
This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!
You might also dig this one from the VR archives: Passover, matzah, dialectics, 2006.