Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pesach Reflections: From Chametz to Matzah

The last days and moments before Pesach are always a little challenging.
All the chametz (leavened goods) must be removed from the house, and the special dishes and supplies for Pesach must be brought into the house, so that cooking for Pesach can begin in a chametz-free environment. This means the chametzdikh and the Pesadikh must coexist, but not come into contact in the last few days before all the chametz is sold or banished, and Pesach living commences with the first Seder.

This year was especially tricky, being one of those years in which Pesach commences at the end of Shabbat, which means that all chametz had to be gone by mid-day Friday, but Pesach living did not begin until sunset Saturday. The usual Shabbat fare could not be eaten this year, as we had already removed and nullified the chametz, and could not own any after noon on Friday. In years like this, I close the kitchen after breakfast on Friday, as we do that really Jewish thing of having Chinese dinner out before sunset when Shabbat begins. It works.

The turnover from chametz to matzah has a spiritual dimension as well as the practical one.
Chametz is a symbol of all that is puffed up and overblown in our lives. As we remove the chametz for this week of Pesach, physically we become disoriented from the normal routine. During the transition from one to another, we have to be mindful of all those little acts that we would normally do without thought, such as reaching for the (wrong) glass. On the spiritual level, this mindfulness is meant to lead us to a renewed appreciation of the realities of our lives, those things that are really important, after we have removed our puffed-up and often unrealistic view of our lives.

For perfectionists, the commandments and customs of Pesach can be especially dangerous, for it is very easy to miss the point of the commandments and customs by focusing on doing it perfectly.
That is clearly puffed-up and unrealistic.

The Rabbis of old must have understood perfectionism very well
because they developed rituals to help those of us in its thrall.
Rituals like the search for and the nullification of chametz.

This year, the search for chametz took place on Thursday evening, because of the intervening Shabbat before the beginning of Pesach.

I hid ten pieces of chametz throughout the darkened house.

Then the pyros--excuse me, men--of the family conducted a search for it, using a candle for light, a feather to sweep up the crumbs, and a wooden spoon to place it in the bag.

Here, Bruce is lighting the candle as N. looks on, holding the other necessary implements for this important job.

The search for chametz is symbolic of the search for and removal of all that is overblown within us, all that gets in the way of reliance on G-d. Miracles and wonders and liberation cannot happen, according to our story, until we recognize the reality in front of us. Then, like Moshe standing before the burning bush, we realize that we have been walking "sightless among miracles" all along.

The warm but finite glow of the candlelight is a symbol of the light of the soul which is carried through the house, as it is written:

"The soul of a human is a lamp of G-d, searching all the innermost parts." (Proverbs 20:27)

So it is that while searching for chametz in our houses on a physical level, we are also searching our hearts and minds, preparing for our Feast of Freedom by finding and freeing ourselves of the physical and spiritual chametz in our lives, at least for this one week each year.

And although this is a truly serious venture, like most Jewish ritual practice, it has it's joyful and lighthearted moments.

The joy comes from doing these little rituals together, becoming as children again, and from seeing the children growing into an adult understanding as the years pass.

The lighthearted moments come because the ritual itself interrupts the practical focus on preparations, causing the Ba'alat Bayta (mistress of the house), who has been absorbed and distracted by Everything That Must Be Done, to change focus. That would be me. When I change my focus from the practical to the spiritual side of Pesach, I get disoriented. This year, I forgot where I hid one piece and that led to all kinds of speculation.

N: "Mom has definitely moved to Manischewitzville!"

Bruce: "And her brains must be chametz!"

Gee, thanks for your votes of confidence!

In the end, though, we found all of the chametz--because I have a pre-determined number of pieces hidden--and proceeded with the important part of the ritual for perfectioninsts.

Of course, there is no way one can really remove every crumb of chametz or every drop of fermented stuff that has ever wafted on the air currents or been spilled and ran under the baseboards. So, as with much of Jewish ritual behavior, the point is to do your best and trust that it was good enough. It is this last part that is so hard for perfectionists like yours truly.

Therefore, after the search for chametz my intrepid "chametz busters" recite a legal formula in Aramaic nullifying any chametz we may have missed:

"All chametz in my possession which I have not seen or removed or of which I am unaware is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth."

Normally, on the day after the search for chametz, we destroy the symbolic ten pieces by burning it. Any other chametz is sold to a non-Jew over Pesach, so that we do not own any of it. We go to these extraordinary lengths, the rabbis say, because often in our lives our possessions end up "owning us."

This year, fire-danger restrictions and a high wind made that fool-hardy to the extreme, so the guys took a little hike to throw the symbolic ten pieces in the water of Tijeras Arroyo. They recited an even more widely-cast legal formula:

"All chametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth."

This formula causes the perfectionist in my soul to sit up and take notice. Once it is recited, I can stop. I have removed all the chametz I need to remove.

I spent Friday afternoon turning the kitchen over for Pesach with a free heart; thoughts of any unremoved chametz passing overhead in the monkey-mind, as passing clouds do on an otherwise sunny day.

Freed from the need to remove any more chametz, I ate a nice Chinese dinner--always kosher if eaten in a Chinese restaurant :).

Later, as we recited the Kiddish in the living room for our chametz-free Shabbat, my mind turned to the upcoming Seder.

Tomorrow, I told myself, the fun part begins.

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