April 21, 2005
This evening was the community matzah-bake at CBI. (Baking your own matzah is both easy and fun; I recommend it.) When we were done, I helped clear the chametz out of the synagogue kitchen. We didn't do the bedikat chametz ritual with the spoon and the feather -- just boxed up the bread products, the flour, anything which is leavened, to be taken away.
The term chametz comes from the Hebrew l'chimutz, to sour or ferment. And it's forbidden during Passover. The prohibition comes from two Torah verses: Exodus l2:l9 ("For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses") and Deuteronomy l6:4 ("No leaven shall be seen within all your borders for seven days.") It's a reference to the story of the Exodus which we re-tell during the seder; our ancestors left Mitzrayim in haste with no time for their bread dough to rise, so they ate flatbread on their journey. As we replicate their journey in our own lives, we eat matzah, too. And to make sure we don't slip up accidentally, we eschew everything that rises.
The need to eradicate chametz for the week creates a spring cleaning frenzy in most Jewish households at this time of year. Metaphorically, the process symbolizes a spiritual house-cleaning, the opportunity to discard the unwanted in ourselves and our communities. This commentary takes a fascinatingly Buddhist approach: "The idea is that we divest ourselves entirely of that which symbolizes natural desires. Such desires, themselves legitimate, are nevertheless the root of slavery...."
One of my favorite parts of the seder I lead is a reference to this practice, and comes as we're just getting going, warming up for the journey at hand. We read a poem by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, called "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nisan." The poem is long and wonderful and has a beautiful rhythm to it. My favorite part of the poem is the end:
Some destroy Hametz with fire
others throw it to the wind
others toss it to the sea.
Look deep for the Hametz
which still gives you pleasure
and cast it to the burning.
When the looking is done we say:
All that rises up bitter
All that rises up prideful
All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful
All Hametz still in my possession but unknown to me
which I have not seen nor disposed of
may it find common grave
with the dust of the earth
amen amen selah . . .
After we read the poem aloud, we go around the table and give everyone the opportunity to name the chametz that she or he wishes to discard this holiday season. Usually I go first, because I knew this was coming and it never seems fair to put guests on the spot. Usually I begin with, "This year I want to let go of my need to have everything turn out the way I expected it -- especially the seder." And everyone laughs, because a seder involves some amazing cat-herding; it's a dinner party, it's a reenactment, it's a religious ritual, it's dinner theatre, it's a reunion! And it never goes as smoothly as I imagine, and it's always a little bit hard for me to let my expectations go and enjoy the slightly chaotic reality instead.
But this year I'm not leading a seder, and though I imagine the seder at Elat Chayyim will be full of this kind of participation, I don't know if I'll get the chance to say what I want to cleanse in myself this year. What I want to dispose of, cast away; what puffs me up. So I figured I'd do it here.
This year I'd like to let go of my perfectionism, my fear that what I'm doing isn't enough. Expecting more of myself than I do of others is a kind of ego trip, and dwelling on potential inadequacies means knocking the gifts I've been given. So when I catch myself falling prey to this very old impulse, I'd like to be able to notice it; name it; and, without judgement, just open my hands and let it float away. Because Passover is the holiday of our liberation from narrow places, and these fears are a narrow place from which I'd like to move on.
Ordinarily, we perform bedikat chametz, the ceremonial cleansing of what's leavened, the night before Passover starts. But this year, since Passover comes right on the heels of Shabbat, we do it tonight instead. In the spirit of that process, I wish all of my readers strength in identifying what needs to be tossed out this year. And I wish you a joyous and fruitful holiday; a holiday in which liberation becomes real, and the suffering of enslavement only a memory; and a holiday in which your spirits soar through laughter and prayer and song, the only "leavening" we can keep.