March 28, 2013
The chametz within
Rejoice! Spring has arrived, and Pesach is here. The time of our liberation is at hand. The Exodus from our narrow straits is re-enacted once more.
To be sure, Pesach is about history — the story of the children of Israel leaving the oppression of Egypt, freed into the wilderness of Sinai.
But Pesach is far more than a retelling of history.
Pesach is the holiday that teaches us to rid ourselves of the dross in our lives. It is the holiday of the eradication of chametz — the fermenting element needed for dough to rise. Get rid of the yeast and our daily bread becomes the food of angels, a vehicle for holy ascent.
This chametz exists within each of us. It is the ingredient that causes anger to bubble up, resentment to arise, prejudice to form. Chametz is both the cause and the result of the accumulation of stubbornly held opinions, ancient slights and long-held grudges.
Chametz wraps around our souls and our hearts like linen around a mummy, preserving for eternity all the anguish within. Chametz wraps and wraps around our souls until the eternal light that shines within us is dimmed, dulled and can no longer be seen.
We are commanded to find the chametz within us, gather it and burn it. This is the true meaning of a burnt offering; an offering that is a pleasing scent unto God. This is the offering we give those we love when we attempt to purge ourselves from past transgressions: “See how much I love you,” we say. “I’m cleaning house. I’m getting rid of all that displeases you, and I’m doing so for you, as a sign of my love.”
Notice how we are not asked to gather the very best in us as an offering, but rather the very worst in us. This is key. This is the ikar — the main point.
The second verse in the book of Leviticus says: “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person brings from you a sacrifice to the Lord; from the animal, from the cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.”
How are we to understand this statement? Is this a simple, straightforward instruction about the species to be sacrificed, or is there something deeper being addressed? Obviously, the Torah means what it says and must be understood that way. But if that was all the Torah was addressing, I believe it would have faded away into the dust of history ages ago.
Chasidic teaching instructs us to look at the wording and see that what we are really being asked to bring near to God is the animal, the beast within us. We are being asked to offer up the material, physical, earthbound element within us, our neshamah behemit — our beastly soul.
All of us, hopefully, have qualities we are pleased with and would love for others to notice. But we also have qualities we work hard to transform, subdue or even eradicate. Most of the time we wish those qualities would simply evaporate and disappear from within us.
The Torah commands us to bring our least desirable qualities as an offering, not because they are beautiful and pleasing, but rather because they represent our deepest, most painful struggle. We are, after all, Yisrael — those who will struggle with God — and it is within that struggle that our redemption is found. It is the very struggle with our inner demons, our worst angels, that ennobles us and raises us up higher than even angels can aspire to ascend.
It is that coarse, material soul within us, the twin sister of our Godly soul, that bears the sweetest fruits of our labor; that is why we are asked to offer it up as a token of our love.
The chametz we carry within us year-round is the expression of that beastly soul; it is the Pharaoh within us, yearning to mummify all that is sweet, precious and pure within us, and cast us into the darkness of Egypt’s penultimate plague.
So let us clean house, demummify spiritually and physically. Let us burn the chametz of our anger and hurt, our pride and our prejudice. But let us remember this: It is only because of our chametz that we struggle and grow; it is only because of our beastly, material soul that we rise higher and higher as we labor to transform ourselves into better human beings. Clean, gather and burn the chametz, but leave a little trace of it somewhere deep inside so that next Pesach can be as joyous a festival as this one; so that next Pesach can offer us as meaningful a struggle for liberation as our past festivals have offered.
A joyous, happy and clean Pesach to all.