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Thoughts on Pesach 5782

Menachem Mirski

This Friday at sunset we will mark the beginning not only of Shabbat, but also the festival of Pesach, which is one of the main pillars of our religious experience and our identity. Passover is a festival of freedom and joy, but also of certain duties and necessary sacrifices which are supposed to shape us psychologically so that we become conscious “owners of freedom”:

The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders… Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Ex 12:33-34;38-39)

The above story is the source of a law according to which during Pesach we don’t eat not only leavened bread, but also any kind of products containing chametz, i.e. made based on the leaven of five grains: rye, wheat, spelt, oat and barley, or containing even trace amounts of them, if the process of their production could have led to the creation of leaven. Not only eating, but also owning these products on Pesach is forbidden.

Sometimes it is generally said that we do all this to commemorate those events; but this statement is not correct, since this tradition is based on a “stronger” rabbinical rule expressed in the Mishna (Pesachim 10:5): “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: ‘And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8)”. This rabbinical rule is almost ordering us to “embody” the fact of leaving Egypt, so that we never go back there again and so that once and for all we can remain free people, which in the human world has always been and still remains a challenge, often an uneasy challenge.

That’s among others the reason why our tradition abounds in rituals and laws helping us “embody” the experience of the exodus from Egypt. Some of them are laws regarding chametz:

When one searches for chametz on the night of the fourteenth or the day of the fourteenth [of the month of Nissan] or in the middle of the festival, he should recite the blessing before he begins to search: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us about destruction of chametz. And he searches and seeks [it] in all of the places into which we introduce chametz, as we have explained. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Leavened and Unleavened Bread 3:6)

And he searches and seeks [it] in all of the places into which we introduce chametz…– such a search can be very time consuming or actually never ending, if someone treats this matter very meticulously. So we don’t become obsessed over this, the Rabbis decided that there must be a rule limiting the practice of searching and getting rid of the chametz:

And when he finishes searching – if he searched on the night of the fourteenth or on the day of the fourteenth [Nissan] before the sixth hour, he must nullify all of the chametz that remained in his possession and that he does not see. And he should say, “All the chametz that is in my possession that I have not seen – behold it is like dust.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Leavened and Unleavened Bread 3:7)

Therefore we are obliged to end the search for the chametz at a certain point and recognize that we’ve done everything in our power and seal this with the above mentioned statement. In my opinion what’s very important here is that we should use such “limiting rules” not only with regards to chametz, but also many other areas of our lives. Let us then engage in an intellectual experiment and let’s consider that chametz is: a burden, a problem, a hardship, a yoke or – a weakness or addiction. All such things are obstacles limiting our freedom. We should be always eliminating them from our lives. In many cases we should be as meticulous as with the searching for and destruction of chametz, otherwise the problems and burdens will quickly come back to us. But here we also need a “limiting rule”, so that we don’t become obsessed with fighting against all these things, since this can yield contrary to expected effects. For example focusing obsessively on one’s own weaknesses or an exaggerated search for evil in everything that surrounds us, even if the motivation behind it is positive, doesn’t make our life better. At a certain point while fighting against such things we must simply recognize that we’ve done a lot, that we’ve done all that was in our power, seal it with a blessing, leave those burdens and weaknesses behind us and keep on living our lives, not letting ourselves be determined by something we have already largely overcome, yet not completely.

Shabbat shalom,

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka