I’m entering my fifty second annual observance of Passover this year, with its myriad celebrations and eating prohibitions. Yet after fifty one faithful Passover holidays without hametz, leavened foods and food mixtures, I’m still trying to figure out why this leaven-free life matters to me. Why the countless hours of cleaning and koshering kitchen items, why spend thousands of dollars on price gauged holiday foods whose base is powdered matzah, and why limit an already limited kosher diet, howbeit for a mere eight days?
To badly echo Elizabeth Barrett Browning, how could I leave the leaven that I love? Let me count the whys.
Purim: If by the end of this holiday my family and I have not already cleaned out the sugar drenched junk and pseudo-taschen (store bought Purim cookies that taste like they got stamped out at a box factory), Pesach (Passover) is the perfect time to finish the job. But honestly, what kind of a tradition is this that feeds our carb addictions then forces us into detox a month later?
I don’t want to disappoint my parents: They should live and be well until a hundred and twenty, “The exact amount in thousands of dollars that we scrimped and saved so that you and your siblings could go to Jewish day school, Hebrew high school, and Israel, and so that you could go to rabbinical school. Now you’re telling us that you’re thinking of eating hametz on Pesach?” OK, they’ve never had this conversation with their son, the rabbi, nor will they ever. Still, loyalty to family tradition is a not too shabby motivator if you are lucky, as I am, to have a family tradition.
My synagogue would get mad at me: “After all, rabbi, in the Conservative Jewish world, someone has to observe the laws of the Torah, right?” All facetiousness aside, the members of Conservative synagogues expect their rabbis to not eat hametz on Pesach because in great numbers they themselves refrain from eating it. Nonetheless, observing the commandments simply because I’m a rabbi is sort of like having to become a triangle simply because I’m a geometry teacher. I have to do better than this.
The neo-mystical ”inner journey” approach: This actually has very old roots, dating all the way back to the Talmud. There, the rabbis identified yetzer ha-ra, a person’s evil inclinations, as se-or she-ba-isa, the leavening in the dough. Just as fermenting agents puff up and swell dough, “Old Man Yetzer,” our impulses to be arrogant and rebellious, dangerously inflate our egos out of reasonable proportion. Later Jewish mystics, Hasidic teachers especially, took this metaphor quite far. They read all of the laws of hametz and Pesach koshering as a symbolic drama about our inner journeys to tame our personal demons and free ourselves of the ”ego-hametz” within.” I personally resonate with the symbolism; though when my wife rolls her eyes at the mention of it, I’m forced to remember that, taken too far, it can degenerate into a spiritually narcissistic, inner quest of the individual, divested of behavioral content and connection to community. Besides, sometimes a piece of hametz is just a piece of hametz.
Reliving slavery and freedom matters a lot: Even if you have to clean like a slave to relive the experience. It’s the behavioral content – things like not consuming hametz foods to remember our ancestors’ Exodus experiences – that makes the Jewish difference. It matters to me that halakhah (Jewish law) tells me, “For eight days a year, you can come out of your upper middle class American comfort zone and do something a bit arduous that hints ever so slightly at what it means to know deprivation and hardship.” Of course, the problem with this approach is the risk of its becoming a ritual of deprivation for its own sake. How do I take the lessons of ha-lakhma-anya –the bread of affliction experience – and turn them into my personal motivators for feeding the hungry and helping the oppressed right now?
God Said So: In the end, this is the most important reason for leaving the leaven I love behind. Yet, in doing this for God, I don’t mean what people may think I mean. I’m not opposed to the idea of the God who literally commands us to refrain from eating hametz, I just don’t find it especially relevant to motivate me to perform this or any other mitzvah (commandment). The web of religious observances that is Judaism infuses my life with a sense of sacred obligation to be and do more than I am as a Jew and a human being; to take my most basic impulses and channel them toward a more meaningful existence dedicated to making life holy and the world better. Even the “crazy-making” intricacies – within reason – of the hametz prohibition compel and allow me to open myself to a sense of godliness. That sense compels us to reflect the Exodus from Egypt in our actions and ideals. The divine is in the details.