As Pesach draws closer, we get more and more engrossed in our “Pesach cleaning.” The Torah prohibits us from having any form of chametz (leaven) in our homes on Pesach and, as a result, we diligently clean our homes of any last remnant of leaven. Chametz is fermented dough, i.e. dough that has been left to rise naturally or with yeast. It is the opposite of matzah – dough that is baked before it has a chance to rise. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach to commemorate the Exodus, when the Jews ate matzah because the Egyptians sent them out of the land before their dough could rise.
Some people struggle to understand this commandment. They value the idea of eating matzah in order to help us relive the momentous event that gave rise to our nation. But they grapple with the law that all chametz must be removed from the house. Why couldn’t the Torah simply allow people to eat matzah even while there is chametz in the house? Why is it necessary to clean every nook and cranny in the house to remove all traces of chametz before Pesach begins? What is the deeper meaning behind this mitzvah?
We find an interesting reference to leaven in the Talmud in a section dealing with different prayers various Sages used to say: “R’ Alexandri, after the Amidah (Shemoneh Esrei) would say thus, ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before you that our will is to perform your will, but what holds us back? The yeast in the dough and our subjugation to foreign regimes. May it be Your will that You save us from their hands, so that we return to serve You with a complete heart.” (Berachot, 17A). What does this reference to yeast in connection to G-d’s will mean?
Rashi explains that the yeast in the dough refers to the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, our personal negative force. Just as the yeast in the dough agitates the dough and changes it from its natural state, so too, the Yetzer Hara incites and agitates one’s heart to turn it from its natural good state. This is the first comparison between out negative forces and chametz; let’s see if we can find any more similarities.
One of the properties of yeast is that it fills dough with air and makes it appear much bigger than it really is. One of the main tactics employed by the Evil Inclination is to give people an inflated feeling of self worth. When a person “rises” and is full of air, he is much more likely to sin, as he cannot see any faults in his behavior. Additionally, he is much more likely to be a rude and offensive human beings since he sees himself as “above” most of the people around him, and is not sensitive to their feelings. This comparison shows yet another degree of similarity between the Evil Inclination and leaven.
But what may possibly be the most fundamental likeness is the one that is often overlooked. How does leavening work? Does one put yeast in the bread and voila, the bread rises immediately? No, leavening is a very slow process that occurs gradually, taking a long time to achieve its goal. It works at such a slow rate that it is imperceptible to the human eye (haven’t you ever heard the adage, “A watched dough never rises”?) Additionally, all you need is a tiny bit of yeast to ferment a very large dough. This is the exact modus operandi employed by the Evil Inclination. It doesn’t start off telling one to do something terrible – no, it’s too smart for that. It tells us to be a little lax with this, to put down our guard with that, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, it woos us in the wrong direction. On top of that, a little bit of negativity, when left to ferment inside us, grows larger and larger until it affects our entire personality.
The idea of the Pesach cleaning symbolizes the fact that over the course of the long dark winter we probably have picked up some negative behaviors. (Darkness in the physical world is always indicative of spiritually challenging times. Thus, the winter is considered a more spiritually difficult and arduous time, as is the nighttime.) Before we can enter the season of redemption, we need to root out all the yeast, all the negativity inside of us. If even a little bit of that negative force is left within, it will grow insidiously until it begins to significantly undermine our growth as a human and a Jew.
Matzah represents the force diametrically opposed to chametz. The process of making matzah requires extreme alacrity. The moment a bit of dough gets to the stage where it might begin to leaven, it is immediately scrubbed away (in a matzah factory, every 18 minutes the entire production line is meticulously cleaned). Matza demands never allowing anything a moment to ferment, a moment to get old, rusty, or passé. It is a process that must constantly be infused with new energy, new ingredients, and a new zest. In a similar manner, this is how we keep the forces of positivity and the Good Inclination empowered – by constantly imbuing them with newness, excitement, and vitality. Once we clean out the accumulated, festering negative forces represented by chametz, we eat matzah, the food that epitomizes freshness, transformation, and energy.
So this year, as we scrub down that last cabinet or clean out that last drawer, let us not just focus on the physical labor we are doing in the physical world, but on the spiritual cleansing that we should be doing in the parallel, inner, spiritual world.
Have a Fresh Pesach,
R’ Leiby Burnham
Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational program at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.