Shaarei Shamayim

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Today is Shabbat Hagadol, “The Great Sabbath,” the Shabbos before Pesach and Jewish tradition calls upon rabbis to speak the Shabbos about Pesach. Let me ask you: What other festival in the Jewish year requires as much painstaking and exhausting preparation as Pesach? Nothing even comes close.

Passover's central ritual is the eating of matzah. In fact the Torah calls Passover, Chag haMatzot, “The Festival of Matzah.” In order to call this cracker-like substance matzah, it must undergo demanding supervision. From the moment the flour and water are mixed to the end of the baking process, no more than 18 minutes are allowed to transpire, otherwise, what was to be matzah becomes chametz, defined as 1 of 5 grains—wheat, rye, oats, barley or spelt—in contact with water for more than 18 minutes.

For the 8 days of Pesach, chametz may not be eaten nor any benefit derived from it; it cannot even be seen or found in one’s possession. The Torah goes as far as to warn us that anyone who has chametz in his possession on Passover, his soul will be cut off from the Jewish people! So if you do not intend to get rid of all your not-kosher-for-Passover foods, if you haven’t already done so, please fill out that little form in my Friday email to sell your chametz and bring it in to the shule tomorrow or Monday morning. If you come when the shule is closed, just put it in the outside mailbox. If you have deleted the email with the form, when you come in we’ll give you another one to fill out.         

The process of purifying our homes from chametz culminates on the evening before the Seder after sundown when the house is searched for the last time—customarily with a candle, a feather and a wooden spoon. It can be a lot of fun and even a mystical experience. 1st you take 10 pieces of bread and place them around the house. Please remember where you put them. I remember one Pesach when my son Jonathan was young and he begged us to let him hide the bread. He did such a good job hiding the bread that he didn’t remember where he put all the pieces. We were still finding pieces of bagels all through Pesach!

After you hide the bread you then close all the lights recite the blessing for searching for the chametz by the light of a candle. All of a sudden, the whole mood of the house changes as you begin to purify your home searching for the chametz using a feather to brush the hidden pieces of bread into a wooden spoon and then dropping them into a bag. When you’re done, somehow your home feels different, more holy, as you recite the prayer found in my email and in the beginning of most Haggadahs nullifying any chametz you haven’t found. Don’t worry, if you don’t have a feather or wooden spoon at hand, improvise and use something else—a napkin, a Kroger bag.

But you’re not through yet! The following morning, before the 5th hour—this year it’s Monday 12:20pm—whatever chametz still to be found in one’s possession is burned, followed by an avowal in Aramaic nullifying any chametz that may have gone undetected, unseen by the eye, declaring even this “invisible” chametz abandoned, worthless, as insignificant as the dust of the earth.

Why such scrupulous care when it comes to purifying the home, so that by the time the holiday is upon us we’ve done everything in our power to separate ourselves from something which, in the final analysis, skeptics scoff at as being nothing but fermented flour?

The sages of the Talmud (Pesachim 7b-8a), insist that the final search must be done by the light of a candle, citing such diverse sources as Joseph’s search with candles among his brothers’ possessions for his stolen goblet, Gd’s search of Jerusalem with candles in order to uproot the sins of Israel before the coming of the Messiah, and even a verse in Proverbs which tells that the candle of Gd is the soul of man—able to see into the depths.

It’s intriguing that both the mystical Holy Zohar as well as the rationalist Maimonides see in the activity of scraping away layers of dirt and chametz a spiritual message. They teach that this search for chametz parallels the wrenching out of sin, expressing the need to look deeply into one’s soul, and confronting spiritual sin not only with prayers and fasts, but also with the physical work of preparing for Pesach. If you to think about it while you’re working, you will see that the process works. The process of making your home Pesachdik may be exhausting. You may be so tired, but you will really feel cleansed as well.

It’s fascinating that the Hebrew words matzot, matzahs, and mitzvot, Gd’s commandments, are composed of the same letters—just with different vowels. Even the words chametz and matzah—which are both made from the same substances, flour and water—have virtually the same letters. The difference being that the word matzah has the letter hey and the word chametz a chet. The hey and chet have the same shape, only the upper leg of the hey is not connected to the top—the difference is merely the width  of a hair—signifying that all too often the difference between chametz and matzah is just a speck, just a moment in time. The same goes with a mitzvah and sin. Loving your neighbor is clearly a mitzvah; loving your neighbor’s wife isn’t!

Chametz literally means, “sour.” As the bread dough sours it leavens and expands—eventually becoming puffed up as a challah, representing what’s sour in our lives: material excess, pride, sexual misconduct, neglect, you name it. If we neglect the dough for more than 18 minutes, what was to be matzah turns into chametz, signifying that a mitzvah can sour and become a sin.

You see, sin needn’t be seen as some major theological lapse. It’s often just the product of neglect and laziness—of not being where you’re supposed to be and not doing what you’re supposed to do...of letting go when you should be holding on…or of not letting go when you should. Thus the search for chametz in the home parallels the search for chametz in the heart.

The Jewish people’s Exodus from the Egypt of the Nile comes to symbolize our personal exodus from the Egypt of the soul. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which means, “narrow places.” The Jewish people’s Exodus from the narrow places of Egypt where they were squeezed and oppressed into slavery comes to symbolize our personal exodus from the narrow places of our lives where we are squeezed by life circumstances at times and don’t always respond with our best behavior. That’s why, perhaps, we celebrate Pesach in the spring. In the spring the world renews itself from the deadness of winter and starts over again. It is, therefore, a great time for repentance, starting over and getting back to our true selves.

So don’t go on about how hard getting ready for Pesach is. It’s good exercise for the body; your home will be cleaner than ever; and it’s great for the soul. As so let us pray that as we search for the chametz in our homes this year, may “The Compassionate One, the forgiver of sin Who doesn’t destroy”…Who saved our ancestors from slavery in the narrow places of Egypt…show compassion upon us and nullify our sins as we seek to nullify all that is chametz, sour, in our lives. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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