Do you like matzah? I do not. (There are many people who eat it year round – I have never understood this.)
There is a certain irony to the Passover season. Those of us who prepare for it in a traditional way are already working hard at cleaning and “kashering” (making kosher) our homes in preparation for the holiday, or at least working hard to gobble up all our mishloaḥ manot packages in time. In these weeks before Pesaḥ, the tradition is to seek a kind of impossible perfection in dutifully removing every microscopic bit of ḥametz, the five species of prohibited grains: wheat, oats, barley, rye, and spelt.
Every surface must be scrubbed; every drawer emptied; old food products discarded. The gunk at the bottom of the fridge is banished. In Sephardic homes, where they eat rice, there is a custom of checking each individual grain of rice to make sure that there is no ḥametz hiding in the bag. We replace our dishes and silverware with those reserved just for the eight days of Pesaḥ. We sell the expensive stuff (whiskey and large stashes of unopened pasta, e.g.) to somebody who is not Jewish so that we do not own it during the holiday. And if all that is not enough, we search our homes on the night before, with a candle and a feather, to ensure no errant crumbs are hiding. And as we burn our last bits of ḥametz, completing the process of ḥametz eradication, we say an ancient Aramaic formula that declares any remaining hametz that we somehow missed null and void, like the dust of the Earth.
We seek perfection in the removal of ḥametz from our lives, a kind of ideal, flawless, ḥametz-less state.
And then something really strange happens. As soon as we perfect our lives in this regard, we eat the most imperfect bread-like substance in “celebration” of what is supposed to be a joyous holiday.
Some of our ancient commentators try to explain this Torah-mandated complete removal of ḥametz from our lives as an attempt to rid ourselves of arrogance or the evil inclination. The Talmud tells us (BT Berakhot 17a) of a prayer offered by Rabbi Hamnuna:
רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לְפָנֶיךָ שֶׁרְצוֹנֵנוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹנֶךָ, וּמִי מְעַכֵּב? — שְׂאוֹר שֶׁבָּעִיסָּה
Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough…
That’s a curious prayer, isn’t it?
Rabbi Hamnuna’s point is that what prevents us from being the best people we can be, in holy relationship with God and the others around us, is the arrogance within us that puffs us up, makes us feel bigger than we are. That is the ḥametz in our hearts, the leavening of the soul.
Jews like this idea of physical-action-as-metaphor. A few other examples: We tear an article of clothing while in mourning, and wear it during shiv’ah to demonstrate physically how our insides are torn by the loss. We wear white on High Holidays and throw bread into running water to reflect our desire to be cleansed of sin. We eat cheesecake on Shavu’ot to remind us of the sweet, richness of Torah in our lives. At the seder table, we recline as we drink our four cups of wine, to enjoy the luxury of dining as people set free from slavery.
Likewise, our physical removal of ḥametz from our homes reflects our desire to uproot the arrogance in our souls.
The 18th-century Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk cautioned against feeling too confident in our great talents at avoiding transgression. Don’t walk around feeling you are so perfect, he said, just because you have not sinned lately. Most likely, you have not been challenged appropriately to find the distasteful trait within yourself that leads you astray.
And that is exactly the message of the first night of Pesaḥ. We have dutifully expunged every crumb of arrogance, of puffed-up pride in ourselves, of leavened ego, and then at the seder we say the berakhah “al akhilat matzah” and take a first bite of matzah, at least a kezayit, the size of an olive. For many of us it will be the first matzah we have consumed in about 376 days (leap year!); for most of us, this moment is a major letdown.
You worked hard to get there. You scrubbed the floors and the counters, searched corners and cabinets, burned bread and leftover babka. You prepared food that is 100% ḥametz-free.
And then, meh! For this we left the fleshpots of Egypt?
The Torah (Deut. 16:3) calls matzah “leḥem ‘oni.” The bread of poverty. Poor bread. We use that term in the haggadah, right up front in the Maggid section, when we say in Aramaic,
הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם
This is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
This bread is meant to be imperfect. It is meant to remind us that, no matter how hard we might seek perfection, we are never going to achieve it. Humans are simply not intended to be perfect.
And, by the way, what is that matzah made from? Exactly the same stuff that we have been trying to get rid of for weeks. We often miss the even greater irony that matzah, according to halakhah / Jewish law, is the one form of those five grains that we can eat. Not allowed to rise, not allowed to get fluffy or tasty or glutinous; merely baked quickly, within 18 minutes of having contacted water. It is not just imperfect, not only flawed, but rather it is BY DESIGN unpalatable! You should not enjoy it!
Ramban, AKA Naḥmanides, the 13th-century Spanish commentator, tells us that leḥem ‘oni cannot be fancy, rich bread that is otherwise unleavened, if there is such a thing. It has to be meager. It has to be tasteless.
So what’s the message?
In the next three weeks, you should absolutely seek out and destroy the ḥametz in your life. Find the arrogance, the inclination to do wrong, the jealousy, the impatience with others, whatever it is that you are holding onto that is preventing you from being a holy person.
But know also that you will fail at this task, that no matter how hard you try, the results will be imperfect. You will be imperfect. We are fundamentally flawed beings.
And yet, matzah is still bread. We move forward, imperfectly, with adequate nourishment, aware of the tasks ahead of us.
Some of you know that I have a thing for old Israeli tunes. There is something in the popular music of the British mandate period and the early decades of the Jewish state that is so emotionally powerful; it is filled with melodies and Hebrew lyrics that just tug at your heart-strings.
I was reminded of one of those old tunes this week, a song by the greatest Israeli pop composer of all time, Naomi Shemer. The song is החגיגה נגמרת / HaḤagigah Nigmeret, from 1976. It’s a song that was often sung at the end of festive evenings of the widespread Israeli pastime of שירה בציבור / shirah betzibbur, group singing.
The song reminds us that, when the party is over, it is up to us to pick ourselves up and start again mibereshit, from the beginning. The refrain is as follows:
לקום מחר בבוקר עם שיר חדש בלב
לשיר אותו בכח, לשיר אותו בכאב
לשמוע חלילים ברוח החופשית
Laqum maḥar baboqer, im shir ḥadash belev
Lashir oto bekhoaḥ, lashir oto bikh’ev
Lishmoa ḥalilim beruaḥ haḥofshit
To get up in the morning, with a new song in your heart
To sing it with strength, to sing it in pain
To hear flutes in the free wind
And to start over from the beginning.
There is no perfection; the battle for purity of our souls is endless. We just have to get up the next day and give it another shot.
After the cleaning and scrubbing of ḥametz from our lives, and after the subsequent disappointment by that infamous bread of poverty, and after the eight days of the holiday are over and the Pesaḥ dishes and pots and pans are put away, the next task is to try again. Your mission, imperfect from the outset, is to keep that spiritual ḥametz at bay; to face the world without arrogance, without holding onto what leads us astray.
That is the fundamental message of Pesaḥ.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/26/2022.)