While the primary essence of Passover is fairly straightforward – am I headed in the right direction in the process of slavery to freedom? – I find it really easy to get lost in the layers of its story, as well as all the accompanying rituals and traditions. (Passover isn’t unique in this regard, most of the Jewish holidays provide me with ample opportunity for getting lost or distracted from staying focused on core spiritual values.) For example, let’s take the potentially endless and obsessive search to eliminate chometz (leavened food) from one’s personal space and possession. The prohibition against chometz originates in the Torah:
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread… Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all of your territory. (Exodus 13:6)
Okay, so this creates the rabbit-hole of scrutinizing one’s “territory” to ensure it is free from all things chometz, both big and small. It’s one thing to make sure that the cookies, cereal, and cookie cakes are removed from the cupboards, but it goes to another level when you start shaking out the toaster-oven and sweeping all the crumbs from behind the sofa. It’s easy to get lost in this process because there’s no definitive end-point and the “enemy” becomes smaller and smaller, almost to the point of invisibility. And if you’re inclined to find ways to stay stuck/lost, the never-ending search for chometz provides a great escape from actually doing the hard work of self-examination and the corresponding actions that spiritual freedom requires.
Fortunately, I’ve gained insight into some of the ways that I set traps for myself, and have been provided with tools for combating my on-going resistance to escape these traps. One teaching that comes to mind is a commentary from the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the renowned 19th century Hasidic rabbi based in Poland who writes:
On every Passover, a Jew becomes like a new person… the point implanted by G!D within our hearts is renewed. That point is called “lechem ‘oni” (poor people’s bread), because it is totally without expansion. Matzah is just the dough itself, not having changed through fermentation. Every Jew has this inner place, the gift of G!D. Our task is really to expand that point, to draw all our deeds to follow it. (Sefat Emet 3:99)
I know that if I’m engaged in the search for tiny flakes/crumbs of chometz while ignoring the search for this “tiny” inner point of Holiness within myself, then I’m on a fool’s errand that is bound to end in failure and further suffering. However, if during the rest of the year I’m committed to staying connected to and constantly searching through my Holy Soul – with true honesty and accountability – then I can approach the sacred housekeeping of Passover preparation, confident that it presents me with an opportunity to liberate myself from the self-entrapment of obsessive avoidance. Confident that I can do both the holy internal work and the holy external work and keep them in proper balance. When in better balance, I’m free to accept that perfection isn’t possible and confidently declare that I’ve done enough… and be secure with that decision. It’s a countervailing force to the voice that says things are never enough, constantly seeking out ways to fill an unfillable void.
Today, when so much of our lives is upended with uncertainty and danger, it is really easy to fall back into old habits of entrapment and self-imposed slavery – overeating, endless web-browsing, not returning phone calls, etc. There is a certain absurdity in focusing on bread crumbs and matzoh during a time of a world-wide crisis. However, Passover comes along to remind us that we’re not completely powerless and that we’re provided the means for transcending our fears and patterns of stuck-ness. We do this by using that inner place, which the Sefat Emet described, as a starting point, and constantly working to grow from there.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!