PESACH SHABBAT CHOL HAMOED 5777 - The Mouse and the Challah on Pesach
There were times I thought: what if I changed my religion? I probably would make a lot more money as a TV evangelist than as a rabbi even if I were the rabbi of a Reform Temple. But what stops me is not so much guilt or loyalty to a 3,329-year-old tradition so much as skimming through the Talmud and finding incomparable treasures like the story of The Mouse and the Challah on Pesach that I’ll share with you in a moment. Judaism is a religion I’m ready to die for and remain financially strapped for. Joel Osteen can keep his hundreds of millions of followers and his amply overflowing bank accounts as can Jimmy Swaggart. As for me, I’m happy with my low-balance alerts and a loyal following of you my friends in Shaarei Shamayim.
Kabbalah tells us that the most profound wisdom is that wisdom which is packaged in obscurity and even in nonsense (Zohar 3:47b). So I searched through the Talmud, looking for some crazy wisdom for Pesach and I found the story of The Mouse and the Challah (Pesachim 10b). It sounds almost like a Dr. Seuss story:
What if a mouse ran into the house with a piece of bread in its mouth and moments later a mouse is seen leaving the house with a piece of bread in its mouth? Do we presume it is probably the same mouse and therefore it left the house with the same bread it had brought in? Or do we presume it’s a different mouse, and the original one is still in the house along with the piece of bread? [Remember that it’s just as forbidden to have bread in your house as in your mouth on Pesach.]
And if you opine that we presume that the mouse that went in is the same mouse that went out, what if it was a white mouse that ran into the house with a piece of bread in its mouth and the one that left the house with a piece of bread in its mouth was a black mouse? Do we assume that since it is a different mouse that left the house, the bread which the white mouse brought in is still at large…or do we assume that most probably the black mouse snatched the crumb from the white mouse and therefore we are no longer concerned that the bread which the white mouse brought in is still somewhere in the house?
Or do we look for it anyhow just in case the bread in the black mouse’s mouth was of a different source? And if you will opine that mice do not steal from one another, then what if a mouse ran into the house with a piece of bread in its mouth and a rat ran out of the house with a piece of bread in its mouth? Do we then presume that the rat had snatched the bread from the mouse? Or do we consider the possibility that it is an entirely different piece of bread?
And if we presume that the rat did snatch the bread from the mouse, most probably it is because the rat also snatched the mouse, and both the mouse and the bread are now in the rat’s mouth…so what if a mouse ran into the house with a piece of bread in its mouth and a rat emerged from the house with both a mouse and a piece of bread in its mouth? Do we say that it is certain the bread which the mouse brought into the house is the piece we see in the rat’s mouth, or do we consider the possibility that it may be a 2nd piece of bread which the rat found in the mouse’s nest, and the 1st piece has by now been swallowed by the mouse…or do we consider yet another possibility that the original piece of bread which the mouse had brought in is still in the house somewhere, having dropped to the floor during the scuffle with the rat? [Isn’t this great?]
The Talmud answers: Teyku! (Translation by Gershon Winkler). Teyku is a cryptic Talmudic term that basically says: “We’ll wait until Elijah the Prophet arrives to herald the coming of the Messiah and ask him.”
So what is this all about? This mouse thing, this chametz thing, let alone the rat, mouse and chametz together? Let’s examine the symbolism of “mouse” in the Jewish tradition. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Damai 4a) recounts that there was this village whose grain silos were infested by mice. No matter what they did, they could not rid the mice from the silos. So they called on Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir, who was known as an animal whisper of sorts—of talking to animals. He summoned the leader of the mice and asked her why they were infesting the silos. She replied, “Because the people of this region have neglected to tithe their grain to the poor.” The Talmud then tells us that when they began to share with the poor, the mice left.
A mouse comes and takes away what you neglect, what you deem in the moment as unimportant. Therefore, the Talmud (Horayot 13a) teaches that if you eat from food that a mouse had eaten from, you will forget what you learned. The mouse will have snatched it and run off with it. Mouse, in other words, represents forgetfulness.
Mouse also symbolizes Possessiveness. Not letting go of our exclusive hold on what we have, ultimately leads us to craving what others have. If we are not happy with what we have, we will desire what others have. Then, along will come the mouse and take away even what we do have. As the sages (Sotah 9a) taught: “One who sets his eyes on that which is not his…what he desires is not given to him, and what he possesses is taken away from him.” Rather, we need to learn to be joyful over what we have.
The word chametz—usually translated as “leaven”—literally means “sour.” When we mix grain and water for more than 18 minutes it begins to sour and ferment. Generosity is a by-product of letting go, of liberating ourselves from stuck places and atrophied patterns in our lives. When we let go and give of ourselves and share what we have with others, we rid ourselves of the chametz—of what is sour and selfish—within. As the 16th-century Kabbalistic master, the Shelah (Pesachim, Drush 5:11-12) writes: “All the laws regarding chametz are mentioned by our later sages in the context of the mouse.”
Pesach is an 8-day period during which we work at cleaning out our homes and ourselves of chametz, of all that is sour and selfish in our lives—of that excess stuff that holds us down in past patterns, neglecting what is important, holding back on sharing ourselves and our possessions. Pesach reminds us of how, with Gd’s help, our ancestors moved themselves from being stuck in the throes of slavery to actually jumping over to the other side and beginning their journey to the Promised Land. They left almost all their “stuff” behind in Egypt for the journey. Pesach implores us to let go of our baggage that keeps us stuck, enslaved, bogged down in patterns that run us in circles and bring us nowhere other than where we’ve already been. It is this work that lies at the core of Passover more so than the Seder, the Haggadah, and even chocolate-covered matzah.
So if we did the true inner work of Pesach and then we see a mouse scampering back into our domain with chametz, and another running out with chametz, do we presume it’s the same chametz and we just had a natural momentary relapse of falling back on old ways but then it left us for sure? Or do we presume it’s a different mouse, and the original one is still lingering about with the original chametz?
Worse yet, what if a rat emerges with chametz in its mouth? Or, what if the rat emerges with both—the mouse in its jaws plus the chametz? Do we presume we’ve got it right finally? The answer? Teyku. We’ll never really know because the work of cleansing our inner selves—of getting rid of everything that’s sour, selfish and puffy—never really ends. Our task is to heed the lesson of Pesach and remove everything that’s sour and puffy from our souls. And hopefully that’ll keep the mice and rats away. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis