I didn't grow up "keeping Pesach." By which I mean, my family of origin didn't remove the חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our house for seven (or eight) days. My family ate matzah at seders on the first two nights of the festival, and our seders were sweet and joyous and song-filled, but aside from two nights of matzah our dietary habits during Passover weren't any different from what they were the rest of the year.
By the time I got to rabbinical school, I wanted to take on more observance than I had grown up with. And, all marriages involve compromise -- and one of our areas of greatest difference was religious observance of all kinds. While married I maintained the practice during Pesach of not eating bread, or muffins, or bagels, or anything made of grain that had risen -- but I didn't remove hametz from my house, because my spouse was still eating it.
When my son was born I started doing the pre-Pesach ritual of bedikat hametz. Each year I've hidden bread crusts around the house for him to find, with wooden spoon and candle. Once he finds them, we burn them: a symbolic representation of the spiritual housecleaning that this season demands. But the hametz I was discarding was always only internal.
Two years ago on the day that would become Pesach I immersed in a mikvah to mark the end of my marriage. And last year as Pesach approached I was living on my own for the first time, which meant I could define my Pesach practice anew. It meant I could choose differently. For the first time, it meant I could choose to literally shed hametz.
I boxed up all of the hametz from my kitchen, and followed the custom of "selling" it to a non-Jewish friend for the duration. I bought a small set of bright red dishes for my son and me to use during the week, special Pesach plates and bowls to use only at this season. I hoped that eating on these pretty new plates would help to make the week feel special and set-apart, like a treat rather than a punishment. (And it did.)
Still, anxieties arose. Chief among them was what the week would be like for my son, who is a picky eater at the best of times. I want him to love Pesach. What if in my zeal to embrace a new level of religious observance, I alienated my kid from a festival I want him to savor? I went through several rounds of feeling the anxiety, and then thanking it for its service and sending it on its way. I experienced it as my yetzer ha-ra, trying to talk me out of a change in my religious practice because change is scary.
Yes, change is scary. Growth is scary. Trying an unfamiliar practice can be scary. And in some way, all of that is precisely the point. The Pesach story is one of taking a leap into the unknown, leaving behind slavery's familiar trappings for a journey of becoming. It's the nature of becoming to stretch us, to ask us to grow into more than we knew we could be. In a small way, my new experiment last year with a different kind of Pesach practice was a way for me to take a leap, as our mythic ancestors did.
Of course I didn't want to over-focus on ingredient lists and thereby pay insufficient attention to the festival's psycho-spiritual message of liberation. That would defeat the purpose of the practice, and leave me feeling enslaved to the holiday. But I don't think that was ever really a risk. I've been focusing on the holiday's teachings about liberation for years. My "growing edge" had to do with combining the psycho-spiritual with the practical -- via actually getting rid of my leaven.
Just because the pre-Pesach practice of removing leaven can be misused or damaging, that doesn't mean the practice has no value. I aspired to remove hametz in service of keeping me connected with God and with what I understand this festival to mean. The challenge lies in imbuing the holiday's external practices -- removing hametz, and making different dietary choices for a week -- with internal meaning. In that sense, it's the same challenge posed by every religious practice I know.
When I'm lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night, the difference between merely kindling a pair of wicks at the dining table and ushering in the holy presence of Shekhinah is an internal one. I have to make the effort to connect the two flames (as one of my favorite teachings holds) with the light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed. Those meanings don't inhere naturally in the lighting. They're there because I invest heart and focus in putting them there.
I think the same has to be true for these Pesach traditions, too. Maybe we do them because our ancestors did them, or because others in our community do them, or because we want to see how they might change us. Regardless, it's our job to infuse the external acts with internal meaning. I can seek to make my house-cleaning and disposing of hametz a symbol of my willingness to let go not only of literal crumbs but also old habits, old narratives, old hurts that impede my ability to serve God.
Removing rolls, flour, and breadcrumbs from my kitchen didn't, by itself, make a difference in my life. But having removed them meant that every time I cast my eye over the pantry shelves I noticed their absence, remembered why they were gone, and tried to take the additional step of searching my inner places for old baggage that needs to be discarded so I can journey with God into becoming. Removing leaven gives me an opportunity to do some necessary work not only on my kitchen, but on me.
And like most of the inner work that we do, this isn't work that one only needs to do once. Each year the fires of my heart grow choked with ash and need to be cleaned. Each year I find sour stories and old hurts that need to be swept away. Each year the physical practice of disposing of hametz for a week offers me a reminder of the inner work to which my spiritual life perennially calls me... just as each year Pesach itself invites me into a recognition of how I feel constrained, and how I can go free.