Rabbinic Intern Eliza Scheffler – Shabbat HaGadol 5781 D’var Torah
Cleaning Out the Chametz in Our Houses and Ourselves
Sometimes, the Jewish calendar aligns perfectly with the natural cycles of life. Like in the winter, how our Chanukah candles bring light to the darkest days of the year. And we celebrate Sukkot, the harvest holiday, when the farmers’ market is full of fall produce.
Passover is another occasion when the Jewish calendar just feels right. What do we do right before Passover begins? Spring cleaning! Yes, that itch you get to clear out your closet and scrub your stovetop – that urge to do spring cleaning is a very Jewish feeling. Before Passover, we are instructed to clean our houses of all the leavened bread products that we won’t be eating during the holiday.
You may know that there is a specific ritual for this pre-Passover spring cleaning. It is called “bedikat chametz,” which means the search for chametz. I only learned about bedikat chametz a handful of years ago, so I thought I would share more about it for those of you who, like me, are newer to this ritual.
Step 1 is to remove all of the known chametz from our houses or cordon it off in a cabinet – boxes of pasta, loaves of bread, anything you’re not going to eat on Passover.
Step 2, when beginning the ritual search, we recite the blessing Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam Asher Kidishanu B’mitsvotav V’tsivanu Al Biur Chametz, Blessed are you Sovereign of the Universe who commanded us with the mitzvah to remove chametz.
Step 3 comes after the blessing, to be certain that we’ve found every crumb of chametz, we take a candle or flashlight, and traditionally, a feather and a wooden spoon. (A pigeon generously left a feather on my doorstep this week!) With these tools we can search in cracks and crevices – anywhere that bits of chametz might have gotten lodged. And then we can carefully sweep them up.
As part of this process, it’s traditional to hide pieces of chametz around the house to make sure that our search will have a purpose, so that we haven’t recited a blessing in vain. This is where the process of bedikat chametz can be really fun – especially for kids – because some people hide wrapped up crackers or cookies throughout the house and commence a scavenger hunt for those last pieces of chametz that we will enjoy before Passover.
Step 4 is when the careful search is done and all those bits of chametz have been collected, we make a declaration: All chametz in my possession which I have not seen or removed, or of which I am unaware, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth. A simple legal formula turns unknown breadcrumbs into dust, no longer a violation of Passover.
Step 5, the final step, traditionally takes place the next day. We restate a version of the prior declaration and dispose of the chametz that we’ve collected. There are a few ways to dispose of the chametz. Did anyone else go outside in Brooklyn this morning and smell burnt toast? If so, you might have been smelling the fires that some Jews make to burn their crumbs. This reminds me of the priests in this week’s Torah portion, who made cakes of flour and oil and burnt them up in the fire on the altar as a meal offering to God. If you can’t safely make a fire, other ways to dispose of the crumbs are tossing them into the wind or the sea, flushing them down the toilet, or simply putting them in a garbage bag outside the house.
So bedikat chametz has a practical function – clearly!
But over time, this practice has taken on spiritual meaning as well.
The Hasidic masters understood chametz as a symbol of the ego. Just as yeast causes bread to rise, so too the ego can become inflated. And therefore, the process of searching our houses for chametz is the physical manifestation of a deeper spiritual cleanse. Rabbi Howard Zack explains “The ego is synonymous with chametz. With proper care and nurturing, it rises and supports our personality, motivations and creativity. But if left unchecked, the ego can become overinflated and cause a person to become self-centered, haughty and arrogant. Every person needs to have a healthy ego and a good amount of self-esteem, but too much also spoils and rots the human personality.”(1)
Building on the Hasidic interpretation of chametz, some rabbis see it as a symbol of anything that it’s time to discard.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb reinterprets the declaration made after searching for chametz: “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… may it find common grave with the dust of the earth…’”(2)
I think these rabbis were onto something when they pointed to the spiritual aspects of cleaning. After all, we’ve probably all felt the deep sense of relief that comes from organizing a messy room. We might have faced a break-up by sorting out an ex’s belongings. Or, we’ve processed a loved one’s death while clearing out the things they left behind. We sort through the past, we say goodbye, and we make space for something new.
It’s not only rabbis who understand the spiritual aspect of cleaning. Tidying expert Marie Kondo wrote in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. If you just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too. It’s like resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward.”(3)
The past year has been heavy in so many ways – the lack of smiles from strangers, the lack of touch from friends. Violence, anxiety, loss, and fear. Individually and collectively there is so much that weighs us down.
And we will all have different experiences of emerging from this pandemic. But I’d guess that it won’t be as simple as getting vaccinated and taking off our masks. It will take patience and a willingness to start anew.
When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, it took them 40 years to process the trauma of slavery and become ready to be a free people. But the month of Nissan, in which Passover falls, is when we mark one of the new years in Judaism. The Torah instructs, הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה, This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
The Israelites weren’t free yet, but a new year was declared because that first Passover was the beginning of their path to freedom.
One cleaning ritual – whether it’s bedikat chametz, or spring cleaning – is not nearly enough to process all of the past year, but it can be an invitation to notice what has accumulated in our houses and in ourselves. To begin to open up the drawers in our souls, to find the chametz that we no longer need, the chametz we are ready to discard. May you have a Zissen Pesach and a spring of renewal and freedom.
1 – https://www.columbusjewishnews.com/features/religious_life/torah/check-your-ego-with-your-chametz/article_4c457a0e-6059-11e9-a928-eb12af061604.html
2 – http://bvmtc.math.tamu.edu/~yasskin/Passover/VelveteenRabbiHaggadah.pdf (p. 14)
3 – Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, p. 116-117