For hundreds of years, the children of Israel await the day when they will be liberated from the yoke of slavery. When that day finally arrives, they are forced to get up and leave immediately – otherwise the Egyptians will have a change of heart and the opportunity will be missed. The Exodus teaches us not to miss opportunities, a goal that is generally very difficult to achieve. In our day-to-day lives we tend to become entrenched in our routines, growing ever more gnarled and sluggish, so that every change, no matter how small, becomes a major complication. By the time we examine the opportunity, make a decision, and initiate action, the window of opportunity has often closed. The etymology of the word “opportunity” (from the Latin opportūnus, from ob- “toward” + portus, “port”) recalls a ship coming into harbor. Sometimes, by the time we decide to come aboard, the ship has already sailed for sea, never to return.
Conversations with the Evil Inclination
The Passover prohibition against ĥametz, or leavened food, is a response to that very human weakness. The Israelites decamp from Egypt in such a hurry that there is not enough time for their dough to leaven and rise. They must accede to life’s vagaries and suffice with matzot. They leave as they are, and embark on their journey toward freedom. Yet, among the children of Israel, it seems, there are those who cannot conceive of setting out without bread. When the time comes to hurry up and leave, they do not heed the call, instead dallying in preparing provisions for the road. But as soon as they finish packing their freshly baked rolls, they learn to their surprise that they are alone in Egypt – the exit gates are closed, the opportunity is gone.
Our sages liken ĥametz to the evil inclination. We tend to think of the inclination as a monster, a horned man-devil who goads us into sin, so it seems odd to compare it to ĥametz, which is useful, tasty, and nutritious. But the comparison brings us face to face with a far more formidable enemy. In the Talmud we find the following prayer: “Master of the universe, it is known full well to Thee that our will is to perform Thy will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough” (Berakhot 17b). Rashi explains that the “yeast” is the evil inclination, which lies in our heart – “the dough” – and “ferments” it. The Hebrew word for “ferments,” “maĥmitz,” relates to both ĥametz and “haĥmatza,” or “missed opportunity.” The evil inclination, with which we strive constantly, does not necessarily convince us to do outright evil. But whenever we arrive at a significant crossroads, it tempts us to choose the easy, comfortable fork, to dally and miss the opportunity rather than make an effort and change.
On Passover we read the Song of Songs, which, behind the pretty words, is the tragic story of missed opportunity – a thwarted lovers’ tryst. The final verse begins with the words “Make haste, my beloved” – the meeting is missed, the moment slips away. Earlier, we learn of the beloved’s longing for her lover’s presence: “I sleep, but my heart waketh.” And then she hears him: “Hark! My beloved knocketh. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled.’” But instead of jumping out of bed and running to open the door for her beloved, she lounges about: “I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?” By the time she is done dallying and finally rises to open the door, her lover is gone: “I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer” (5:2–3, 6).
The Song of Songs teaches us to listen for the songs of our own lives. There are those whose entire lives pass them by as they wait to “find love” or “attain enlightenment”; to encounter their “big story,” or someone who knows their purpose or their soulmate – things that do not always arrive. Often those who wait are disappointed to find that the world seems walled off to them, that no one is offering them an opportunity to grow. They are unable to heed the clarion call of life opening its gates for them. The word “ĥametz” relates to missed opportunity, and the prohibition against it on Passover teaches us not to pass by opportunities for personal development. As the Midrash says, “Just as one should not be slow to make the matza, lest it leaven, so one should not be slow to perform a religious duty. Rather, if a religious duty comes your way, perform it immediately” (Mekhilta Bo, 9).
Fear of Missed Opportunity
Our generation emphasizes spiritual work motivated more by love and joy than by fear, or yira. My wife taught me that the yira driving true spirituality is in fact the fear of missed opportunity. Life is so special, every day is so valuable, and it is so easy to miss an opportunity.
A realistic evaluation of life requires the kind of perspective that, sadly, sometimes arrives too late – at death’s door. The introspection brought about by the knowledge of imminent death is a recurring trope in our culture. In Tolstoy’s classic novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the eponymous hero’s terminal illness causes him to reevaluate the emptiness of his life. Only too late does he grasp that his all-consuming focus on climbing the Russian bureaucratic ladder and becoming a “good bourgeois” had kept him from living his life as he truly wanted.
But sometimes people get a second chance. One of the leading candidates in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary in 1992 (which was eventually won by Bill Clinton) was Paul Tsongas. During the campaign, Tsongas learned that he had cancer, and decided to back out of the race. A while later it emerged that it had been a mistaken diagnosis and he was fit to run, but he passed up the opportunity. Tsongas explained that he wanted to devote more time to his family. “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office,’” he said. I recall a sign I once saw that sums it all up nicely: “What is the point of being on the fast track when there is no one to hug you at the end?”
Ultimately, we must learn to differentiate between the substantial in life and the trivial, and through that realization to grow. The belief in an afterlife must not erode the understanding that the arena for action is this world. The next world is static; it is only in this reality that life affords us the opportunity to affect our destiny through action.
Between Ĥametz and Turkish Snuff
One Passover eve, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who was known as the “defense attorney for the Jewish people,” assigned a task to two of his followers. He asked the first to go door-to-door and spread news of a sick man who was in need of ĥametz to eat. Then he asked the second to collect Turkish snuff for the sick man (at the time, Ottoman goods were outlawed in Russia, where the rebbe lived, due to the war between the two superpowers). A short while later, the first man returned and apologized – he hadn’t been able to find any ĥametz, for it had all been burned ahead of Passover. A few hours passed and the rebbe’s second follower made his entrance, followed by a long convoy of people, all bearing sacks of Turkish snuff. Rabbi Levi looked at his two followers and raised his eyes heavenward. “Master of the universe!” he exclaimed. “Do You see the extent of Your children’s love for You? The czar has posted police at every corner to ensure that there is no Turkish snuff, and yet everyone is well stocked. You, on the other hand, have not a single police officer to ensure that there is no ĥametz, and behold – all of the homes are devoid of it.”