Earlier today I arranged the sale of chametz (leavened and leavening products) to a person who is not Jewish. We do this not to avoid preparing for this week of unleavened bread, matzah, but both to take care of things not easily gotten rid of and as a fallback for the tiny crumbs we have missed.
The woman who took possession is the mother of someone who is himself part of our Jewish community, a Jewish family and a Passover tradition while he himself is not of the Jewish faith.
I thought of this seemingly strange ritual that has developed as I went to take a set-aside portion of the chametz from my house to a neighbor, my good friend Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz, whom I have had the lovely pleasure of joining for the final step of removing ownership of leaven for the holiday: the burning of the chametz.
Each year we share a little Torah with each other, and this year we thought about how chametz symbolizes for many Jews something that can be quite harmful: arrogance that puffs us up even as yeast makes the dough rise.
The question is asked in the Lubavitch tradition: If chametz is arrogance, why should it be allowed at all? Shouldn’t we live without it all year long?
After we gasp at the thought, the answer that is given is that in fact we need enough sense of self, imperfect as we are, to be able to face the everyday world — to be puffed up enough to have the strength that we seek to put to good use.
There are, I believe, two kinds of people. Well, really three, but the third is very rare. The very rare person is like matzah all the time: no ego, no anger. I actually believe I have been blessed to know a few of these people.
The rest of us are either full of chametz and somewhat aware of it or full of chametz and don’t really know it. We try to be patient with friends and with those who annoy us. Who can blame us for losing it from time to time?
And, in fact, the truth is that is just what it means to be a human being. If we lose sight of this humanness, we only fool ourselves into thinking we are matzah when we are really still just bubbling with that chametz, waiting to explode.
We mistake our anger for righteousness and our ego, which can be put to good uses, as only recognizing our own gifts and opportunities to help others.
So we have a temporary solution. Get rid of all of it, physically at least, for one week to remind ourselves not that it is possible to be without, even for a week, but that what is at our core is as simple as matzah. That we may really need the other stuff most of the time, but that it does not define us. Not get rid of all the big stuff that we just pretend is gone, nor be defeated by those crumbs we couldn’t find.
Let the fire burn clean not the stuff that makes us us, but the illusion that we can only be us if we never let down our defenses or make room for others.
May this be a sweet and meaningful Passover celebration for all of us as we feast on the bread that represents affliction and wholeness, brokenness and perfection.
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah.