Rabbi Leonard Cohen: Checking ourselves at Pesach

by Rabbi Leonard Cohen

Rabbi Leonard Cohen

(AJNews) – Each Pesach we observe the mitzvah of “bedikat chametz” – the cleaning out of chametz, i.e., leavened foods, from our property.

The source of this commandment is from the Torah “lo yira’eh lekha chametz” – which translates literally to, there shall be no chametz to be seen/found/present by you. The terminology is exacting – not simply you shall not eat chametz, but that no chametz shall be detected amid you (and your property). It is the extremity of the wording in the Torah which is the source of the intensity of the laws of Chametz.

A strict observance of Torah precludes keeping ANY chametz – not only food but any items which could harbor chametz. The rabbis and sages in fact made the mitzvah more manageable through the institution of selling chametz. While some rabbis take a stringent position requiring extreme cleansing of one’s property, others (e.g. Rabbi Haim Ovadia) take more lenient stances, in order to avoid imposing an excessive or unmanageable burden.  A group of students once asked Rav Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, what halachic stringencies they should observe regarding matza for the upcoming holiday.  Rav Yisrael gave them one: “Don’t yell at the widows preparing the matza.”  Chametz cleaning is no easy task; it is therefore important to share in its labour and show kindness and appreciation to those engaged in its challenge.

Why does the Torah use extreme phrasing regarding the elimination of chametz at Pesach time?

Chametz is symbolic of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) which causes us to become “puffed up” – i.e. prideful, or overfilled. The mitzvah of eliminating chametz reminds us to restore humility – to remember our origins as a slave people – and simplicity in our lives. Rabbi Dovid Zauderer writes, “The concept of removing chametz from our homes for the seven days of Passover is really a message for all of us to try and remain chametz-free for the duration of our lives.”

A more challenging question might be, if chametz represents our yetzer hara, why is it permitted in the first place during the rest of the year?  The Radbaz, in his work Metzudas Dovid, explains that Hashem deliberately imparted in us a yetzer hara to test our inclinations, to expend the effort necessary to bring us closer to Kedusha/holiness.  During Pesach, we can throw out the yetzer hara with the chametz, but only temporarily.  The rest of the time, we are meant to do the hard labour of contending with the temptations and challenges of the potential for wrongdoing inside of us.

The comprehensive nature of the Torah commandment thus makes sense; it reminds us how easily we can get lost in the clutter of life, and how wonderful it can be to rid ourselves of that which we don’t need — and come back to the sacred essence of our (Jewish) existence.

Leonard Cohen is the Rabbi of Kehilat Shalom Calgary, now hosting weekly Shabbat services with Kiddush luncheon in person.  For more information, or to reach Rabbi Leonard, email info@kscalgary.org


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