Director of LILMOD and Head of the European Desk at Torah Mitzion
We are slowly getting closer to Tu Bi’shvat, which for many means the starting point for the annual Pessach cleaning. Now, although I am firm believer that Pessach cleanings should take no more than a week, and could even be done within a day, there is no doubt that many will start their “War on Chametz” very soon now. This ancient week-long hatred between Jews and their chametz begins in our Parasha. And the obvious question would be—what is wrong with chametz?
This is, I think, a much more challenging question than why we eat Matzot, because as much as we can, in some way, understand the fact that we eat what our forefathers ate when leaving Egypt, it still requires a lot of imagination to understand what would be so wrong with Chametz. Let’s bear in mind that we’re not talking about a rabbinical decree, meant to make sure we eat Matza. The prohibition even against possessing Chametz is clearly stated in the Torah.
Upon noticing two more obvious facts, I think we will be able to make sense of this.
The first important fact is that, as opposed to their counterpart from most or all of the other mitzvot of the chaggim, the mitzvot of Chametz and Matza were given two weeks before, and not the first year after, the Exodus from Egypt.
Unlike Megila and Mishloach Manot, or the lighting of the Channukiah or the obligation to sit in the Sukka or the fasting of Tisha Be’av – mitzvot (Torah or rabbinical ones) that have all been given after the historical event they
commemorate – the mitzvot of Pessach are given prior to their historical event, namely the night between the 14th and the 15th of Nissan, Yetziat Mizraim. This means that their function isn’t to remind us of an historical event but to initiate
recurring historical events.
The second important fact can be learned when we look at the general picture of the Mitzvot, especially those that were given for the Seder night in Egypt (which differ in some details from ours). We need to look not only at chametz and matza, but also at how the Korban Pessach needs to be prepared – “not cooked with water but rather roasted with fire”. It must be eaten “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste” and more importantly without any leftovers! No doggy-bags from the Seder. When we see that, we understand that all three of the mitzvoth, including the Matza and the Chammetz revolve around the same issue: haste. Everything needs to be ASAP, right here right now.
Normally haste, chippazon, is seen as something negative which guarantees that things will be done the wrong way. Why then in one of the major moments, not only of our nation but of mankind itself, does everything need to be in such a haste? Many answers have been given to that important question.
The thing I realized a few years ago is the very simple fact that those who ate chametz on the 15th of Nissan of that critical year, were very simply those who stayed. They were those who had time to wait for normal bread to be baked. For me chametz symbolizes the staying behind in Egypt.
Now staying in Egypt, with its terrible enslavement, doesn’t seem something a rational person would do, now would it? Wouldn’t anyone jump on the occasion to leave the nation that murdered theirs newborns for a land flowing with milk and honey (they didn’t hear about Israeli bureaucracy yet…)
Well the very simple truth is that many, many of them decided to stay. Many preferred the security of Egypt, albeit its slavery to running off in the desert. “We finally can dream of liberty and emancipation in Egypt, is that really the time to leave?!” Everyone knows the midrashim that speak of the fact that the overwhelming majority stayed. I personally always found that difficult to believe, until I simply remembered to look back and look around and realize that during the entire time of the second temple and during the almost 70 years of the existence of the State of Israel, still the majority of Am Yisrael are afraid to go off in the desert.
For me chametz is staying behind, hesitating to make that big leap towards freedom. Of course not only from the physical Egypt to Israel, but from everyone’s personal “Egypts” (Mizraim comes from the words Me’tzer Yam – the narrows in the sea, that constricts the big and infinite) to everyone’s freedom. Freedom of thought, freedom from our fears, freedom from technology that becomes a burden instead of an instrument and so on.
The entire year chametz is our friend. I would imagine that no one goes by an entire day without eating some
chametz. Because hesitation, doubts, care, double-checking – these are all important and necessary. So go on,
But during the days of pessach, the gates of liberty, all kinds of liberty, are wide open.
Now don’t hesitate – haste!!!