April 20 | Pesach I

Exodus 12:21-51; Numbers 28:16-25

Joshua 5:2-6:1

April 26 | Pesach VII

Exodus 13:17-15:26; Numbers 28:19-25

2 Samuel 22:1-51

Almost every Jew I know has a love-hate relationship with Passover. Most are in love with the texts, history, games, sights, sounds and smells of the seder; with the crunch of that first bite of matzah. Everyone dreads the annual Passover cleaning and purchasing of overpriced food one would never eat during any other week of the year.  It is truly a time of approach-avoidance.

And all because of a few verses in the Torah, most notably Exodus 12:19-20:

“During (these) seven days, no leaven may be found in your homes … You must not eat anything leavened. In all the areas where you live, eat matzah.”

We find in these verses two commandments – to remove all chametz (leavening) from our houses and to eat matzah instead on Passover.

Before we tackle the issue of purging our homes of chametz, I would like to understand why we eat matzah in its place? Our rabbis give us two reasons. One is matzah represents our slavery in Egypt, as we recite in the haggadah while holding up the broken middle matzah, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt.” This thin, hard bread that is cheap and quick to make is also hard to digest and keeps one full for a long time. Matzah was a perfect food for slaves and, therefore, we use it as a way to remember our slavery in Egypt. The second reason is found in the Torah itself, “The people took their dough before it could rise (in their haste to leave Egypt).”  The same cracker bread which represented their time as slaves came to represent their rush to freedom as well. 

Next we need to understand why we must remove all chametz from our midst. The most common leavening product in bread is yeast. Yeast is a mass of fungus that germinates and multiplies when it comes in contact with sugar or starch. This reaction produces carbon dioxide which causes the bread to rise. If carefully controlled and proofed, this will yield rich and flavorful breads, but if left unchecked it will become spoiled, rotten and moldy. 

Our rabbis see a strong parallel between chametz and the human psyche. The ego is synonymous with chametz. With proper care and nurturing, it rises and supports our personality, motivations and creativity. But if left unchecked, the ego can become overinflated and cause a person to become self-centered, haughty and arrogant. Every person needs to have a healthy ego and a good amount of self-esteem, but too much also spoils and rots the human personality.

The Torah commands that we undertake an annual search-and-destroy mission to remove the chametz from our homes.  Find it. Eradicate it. Nullify it. 

It is, however, both a physical and spiritual mission. We must also search our souls to find and destroy the chametz that has caused our egos to overinflate. Only then can we truly appreciate our past servitude to our physical and internal oppressors and celebrate our freedom from them.

Wishing you all a happy and kosher Passover.

Rabbi Howard Zack is spiritual leader at Congregation Torat Emet in Bexley.