Friday, March 10, 2000

The Sin Also Rises:
Purging the Hametz of the Heart

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

 Pesach is my favorite holiday in the Jewish year. Despite all the work, and all the preparation. Because every year, I try to move from sweat to sublime, from physical to spiritual preparation, from the cleansing of the kitchen to the transformation of our lives.

Pesach is really about... the hardness of our hearts, and our openness to others. I begin with the mundane. This has been a frustrating week for my family. Our cleaning service quit on us. With two tiny ones at home, we count on that help though it costs us dearly. It was the worst time in our lives to lose this help. It was the worst time as people newly moved to an area, without a deep network of conenctions and contacts. And, above all, without any doubt, it was the worst time of year that this could have happened. Cleaning has been much on our minds of late. Cleaning and cooking. Scrubbing ovens and counters, changing dishes and utensils, vacuuming the car, clearing the pantry, giving good food away to those in need, and looking for all the places Benjamin has decided to stock up on crackers.

For Jews around the world, a week of hard work lies ahead of us. And, since this cleaning is a religious duty, it falls equally on all members of a household. Whatever our normal division of labor might be. I received revised words to a children's song over the Internet this week, set to the tune of "My Favorite Things," and adjusted to the coming holiday: "Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes; out with the hametz, no pasta, no knishes. Fish that's gefillted, horseradish that stings -- these are a few of our Passover things."

As we prepare for Pesach, we are reminded that there are three primary commandments associated with this holiday. Two are positive commandments, things that we are to do. The third is a negative commandment, something we are not to do. The two positive commandments are to tell the story, and to eat matzah. The negative commandment is... to eat no hametz. And it is, of course, the negative commandment that causes so much tzimmes... I mean tzures. That causes so much trouble. We read in the Torah: "From the fourteenth day of the month, at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day, at evening. No hametz (leaven) shall be found in your houses for seven days." (Exodus 12:18-19) Purge the hametz! Sweep it away, or stow it, store it, and sell it! It is not to be in our possession. We are to derive no benefit from it. So much fuss over getting rid of the hametz. But the question can be asked, this year and every year: just what is this hametz we are supposed to get rid of? Hametz is any product of five types of grain -- wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt -- that has been in contact with water for eighteen minutes (thus "rising") without being handled before baking. A product made from any of these grains is permitted on Passover only if it has been subjected to constant supervision from harvest through baking. That is why you can have a box of matzah that is labeled "Not for Passover Use;" this means that the contents of that box were not subject to such strict supervision.

There are additional restrictions. Many of you know that Sephardic Jews eat corn, beans and rice on Pesach, while Ashkenazic Jews do not. But there are other regional variances as well: in Germany, for instance, fowl was not eaten, because the stomach might still contain grain. The removal of hametz is accomplished through a general cleaning, of all rooms of the house, not just the kitchen. It may take time to accomplish. But with the house final almost prepared, the final step is symbolic: the night before Passover, parents sometimes hide ten pieces of bread in the house, and conduct a candle-lit hunt for the hametz with children (or as adults themselves). The final bread, when found, is scooped up with a feather into a wooden spoon, and then ritually burned. A formula declaring all hametz that the family did not find to be null and void is then recited. Again, why the effort? Why the energy? Some people resist ritual, or scoff at ancient rules.

But the ritual is there for a reason. There is a message behind this mad rush of cleaning. or something found in us. And as I scrub away at my stove, trying to reach cracks and corners I don't bother with the whole rest of the year, I remember the words of a poem by Rabbi Lynne Gottleib which I read every time at this year, words which start with the crumbs on the counter, but which end... with the hametz of the heart.

Removing the Hametz
by Rabbi Lynn Gottleib

Removing the Hametz
in the month of Nisan
with the death of winter
and the coming of spring
our ancient mothers
cleaned out their houses.

They gathered brooms, mops, brushes, rags, stones and lime;
they washed down walls,
swept floors/ beat rugs
scoured pots
changed over all the dishes in the house.

They opened windows to the sun
hung lines for the airing out of blankets and covers
using fire
and water
in the cleaning.

In the month of nisan
before the parting seas
called them out of the old life
our ancient mothers
went down to the river
they went down to the river
to prepare their garments for the spring.

Hands pounded rock
voices drummed out song
there is new life inside us
prepares for Her birth.

So we labor all women
cleaning and washing
now with our brothers
now with our sons
cleaning the inner house
through the moon of nisan.

On the ever of the full moon
we search our houses
by the light of a candle
for the last trace of winter
for the last crumbs grown stale inside us
for the last darkness
still in our hearts.

Washing our hands
we say a blessing
over water...

We light a candle
and search in the listening silence
search the high places
and the low places
inside you
search the attic
and the basement
the crevices and crannies
the corners of unused rooms.

Look in your pockets
and the pockets of
those around you
for traces of Mitzrayim.

Some use a feather
some use a knife
to enter the hard places.

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 us 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...

The crumbs we sweep away are but an outer symbol, for the crummy stuff inside. Our old, crusty habits. That which rises up inside us which we would rather put aside. The crumbs of the spirit, the staleness of the soul. It is the inner house we cleanse as much as the outer one. Thus does the holiday during which we focus on food more than any other blend in with the holiday during which we eat no food at all. Passover and Yom Kippur, the one focusing on the physical, the other withdrawing from it, nevertheless work together to elevate the soul and improve our lives. But the spiritual message of Pesach is not just about what goes on inside us. It is also... about how we look at the world around us.

We learn lessons not just from the negative commandment of not eating chametz, but also from the positive one, that we tell the tale, again and again, of our going forth from Egypt. And just as hametz proved to be more than bread, Egypt, in the way we retell the story, is more than merely a place. It becomes no longer an ancient country, but a current reality, an ongoing danger, a state of mind. Towards the very end of the book of Genesis, the very last weekly portion in that book displays an unusual, actually, a unique feature. Alone of all the weekly portions in the Torah, there is no space between the end of the previous portion and the beginning of that one. The scribal tradition of copying the text of the Torah, which mandates either half a line of empty space or a full paragraph break before the beginning of all other portions, tells us that on that particular week, the portion starts in the middle of a line. As if... as if something happened in that portion that was so terrible that the writer just wanted to rush on through it. To get it over with.

In Hebrew, the last portion of the book of Genesis is called a "closed" portion, because there is no open space at its beginning. And from the way the words are arranged on the page, a great spiritual lesson can be derived. Why is this is a "closed" portion? Maybe someone is trying to tell us here, that something else begins to "close" during the events relayed in that week's reading. What happened in the last portion of Genesis. Why, Jacob died. That's bad. That's sad. That's true. But plenty of other people lived... rather long lives, I might add... and died in the book of Genesis. What was so bad about Jacob's death? One tradition derives an answer from the "closed" portion. A midrash tells us that the portion is "closed" to teach us that after the death of Jacob, "the eyes and the hearts of the Israelites were closed up because of the difficulty of enslavement."

But there is a problem with this. A historical problem. A contradiction. Because slavery did not begin with the death of Jacob. Only much later.

In fact, there is a verse towards the beginning of the book of Exodus which tells us that Joseph and all his brothers had died. What is the purpose of this verse? To teach us that so long as any of those who had gone down to Egypt from Canaan were still alive, the Egyptians did not enslave the Israelites. So the slavery did not begin until many, many years after the death of Jacob.

There is a wonderful Hasidic commentary which resolves the contradiction in the following way. It is true, this rabbi said, "that the physical slavery did not begin until long after the death of Jacob. But. With Jacob's passing, a different kind of slavery began. The first step. The spiritual servitude. Because Egyptian culture began creeping in and influencing the Israelites, without their seeing or feeling a thing. The internal truth was hidden. Thus, 'the eyes and the hearts of the Israelites were closed up,' for the eyes did not see and the heart did not feel anything except the superficial -- and this is the essence of enslavement."

What an amazing insight. To me.. this is profound Torah wisdom. That the first experience of enslavement is a psychological one. When we can't see what is really going on around us. When we are slaves to the superficial. When we judge a book by its cover. A person by appearance. The color of the skin. Or weight. Or gender. By affiliations of birth. Or orientations of nature. That the story of Pesach is not just about removing ourselves from Egypt. But removing Egypt from us. In the way we look at others. In the way we view the world. "Bechol dor vador, chayav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim; in every generation, each one of us must view ourselves as though we ourselves has gone forth from Egypt."

The tale is told not just by us. The story is about us. The story is us. About the pride we are to purge, and the vision we are to focus, to see the world in the depth it deserves. And on Passover, bread is about more than bread, and Egypt is more than a place in our past. They are spiritual symbols, for the puffiness inside, and the pettiness outside. This Pesach, may each one of us rise to the occasion, to sweep away our sins, to cleanse our spirit, to move beyond the labels and petty problems that keep us estranged from one another. This year may we grow in spirit. And then we will know the sweetest taste of Pesach. The one that is neither food nor drink, but a promise we hold out, on the wings of a prayer. "L'shanah haba'ah b'yerushalayim. This year we are slaves. Next year may all be free. This year we are caught up in the problems of our lives. Next year.. in Jerusalem."