Keeping Up with the Joneses and Eating Matzah

hero image
25 Feb 2014

I’ve been trying to locate the Joneses. I know they live in our communities, somewhere, and they are causing much grief. Individuals have confided in me, of late, that they are under enormous pressure to keep up with the Joneses. People are remodeling their kitchens, buying expensive cars, hosting fancy smachot – and falling into serious debt – all because of the Joneses.

Families who are crushed by financial pressures have requested that I (a congregational Rabbi) ask the Joneses to cease and desist, stop raising the ante, lower the bar instead of pushing it higher, or move out of our neighborhood. I suspect the Joneses won’t listen to me, a Rabbi, or anyone else for that matter. After all, the Joneses have been ahead of the pack for millennia going back to the beginning of creation, and there is no sign or evidence of regression on their part.

I have a suggestion for those who are exhausted from their constant race with the Joneses, and it emerges from an understanding of a ritual that we perform every Pesach.

If a Jew owns chametz before Pesach, there are two ways to remedy the situation. Either the chametz can be burned (biur chametz), or one can recite a formula for nullification, which begins with the well-known phrase, Kol chamira vichamiya” (bitul chametz). (This is true only on a biblical level. Rabbinically, one cannot rely on bitul chametz alone.)

Now what is the logic of bitul chametz? If the Torah does not want me to own chametz on Pesach, of what value is it to say, “Yes, it’s my chametz, but I nullify it like the dust of the earth?” Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, shlita, the Rav of the Old City of Yerushalayim, suggests a beautiful explanation. (Sichos Mussar, Bereishis, page 204)

Kabbalistically, chametz represents the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. By ridding ourselves of chametz on Pesach, the holiday of freedom, we are in effect unshackling the bonds of servitude to the yetzer hara.

There are two ways to free oneself from the yetzer hara. The first approach is biur chametz. Symbolically, this means that we exercise self-control and discipline and do not succumb to the enticements of the evil instincts.

Through direct battle, we overpower the yetzer hara and burn him out of our consciousness. However, not everyone can subscribe to this approach and maintain the strength of character necessary to constantly suppress the yetzer hara. The Torah therefore offers us a second alternative that is non-confrontational, and easier to implement.

In reality, the yetzer hara is a ruse and deception. People succumb to immoral desires because they ascribe exaggerated and inflated value to imagined pleasures. In truth, the forbidden fruit never tastes as good as one hopes and does not provide genuine and authentic satisfaction. In this sense, the evil inclination is similar to chametz. On occasion, when my wife bakes challah, I help her punch down the rising dough. The dough quickly expands in all directions, but if I poke my finger into the mass and create a passageway for the carbon dioxide gas to exit, the dough quickly collapses and returns to a modest and humble state. Bitul chametz takes the punch out of the yetzer hara. By nullifying the chametz, we let out the hot air from the evil instinct. We recognize that the yetzer hara inflates and exaggerates the true value of desired objects. When we recite bitul chametz and nullify chametz, “like the dust of the earth”, our sense of perspective is restored and biur chametz becomes unnecessary.

A few weeks ago, weather forecasters predicted a storm of great proportions. People panicked when they heard that it was certain they would be buried under two or three feet of snow. Consumers stampeded through store aisles and bought out complete inventories, leaving behind empty shelves that appeared as if they were attacked by waves of locust.

Weddings and dinners were canceled, and schools and airports were closed. In the end, just a few snowflakes fell on my neighborhood in New Jersey leaving an insignificant dusting on the ground. The “snow storm of the century” was just a lot of hype, irresponsibly promoted by overeager newscasters. The yetzer hara operates the same way and creates mirages that are rooted in fantasy and deception. If man chooses, he can reconnect to reality, and recognize that chametz/yetzer hara is just smoke and mirrors without any real substance. This is the essential theme of bitul chametz.

We too can deal with the Joneses in one of two ways. We can attempt to do biur chametz by catching the Joneses and forcing them to reform – a biur chametz of sorts. This approach never works. The Joneses are elusive, and even if we successfully influence them, a new Jones family will quickly take their place. Far more effectively, we can change our own attitudes and perform bitul chametz instead. We can poke a hole in the balloon of our imagination and burst the inflated bubble of relentless jealousy.

Truth be told, seeking happiness by pursuing the Joneses is an exercise in futility and a form of slavery to boot. The real free man is perfectly content eating simple matzah, which is filling and tasteful.

After reciting bitul chametz, perhaps we ought to have the following thoughts in mind:

“Who cares what my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Jones possess. I will enjoy life by my standards and not theirs. I will conserve my time, energy and financial resources by being my own person and doing my own thing. I think I’ll have a bite of matzah, please. Delicious.”

Rabbi Yaakov Luban

Rabbi Luban is the Executive Rabbinic Coordinator of the Kashruth Department at the Orthodox Union. He is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, NJ.