It’s terrifying and evil, resilient and pernicious and we need all of our physical and spiritual superpowers to wipe it off the face of the counters! Yes, it is that time of year again when we are at war with our arch enemy, Dr. Hametz and his evil plan to puff us up into oblivion.
What is hametz and why is so toxic at this time of year? The Torah emphatically states that no trace of it is to be found in our homes or within our borders for the days of Pesach and we will be cut off if it has not been eliminated (Exodus 12-13). Hametz is essentially a risen byproduct of one of the five grains; wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. After clearing it out, giving it away or selling it, the night before Pesach begins the tradition is to hide ten pieces of it and then search for it with a feather and a candle in all of the dark crevices of our homes. The next morning (11.15 am on Friday April 3rd at the back of Bonai this year) we burn it with a declaration that renders any hametz left in our possession ownerless like the dust of the earth. After all the anguish of the cleaning and searching, we liberate ourselves from what is left or forgotten so that we can enter the Holiday and that first seder hametz-free, as we prepare ourselves to taste that first bite of matzah. As much as we are required not to consume or own hametz, we are obligated to eat the required amount of matzah, slowly and intentionally.
So what is matzah? Well it can be made of one of the five grains; wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. Sound familiar? This is one of the great mysteries of Passover. The same ingredients, raw materials that can become what is most required and desired, the ultimate symbol of this holiday, or the substance that must be eliminated. This echoes the Torah readings close to Purim, that upside down Holiday a month before Pesach. The Israelites are lovingly and lavishly constructing the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, as a holy space for God’s presence. The first chapter of the Megillat Esther describes a debauched party of one hundred and eighty days in the palace of King Ahashverosh and elaborately describes the same materials, which, according to the Midrash, had been stolen from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. The same substances can be used to bring holiness, depth and beauty to the world, or excess, greed and hedonism.
The mystical tradition teaches that hametz is not just an external substance, but an inner landscape; the ego, excessive pride, the over-inflated parts of ourselves or even, in some sources, the yetzer harah (the inclination for evil). What this really means is that there is an internal, personal process that mirrors the external cleaning, hiding, finding, burning and koshering. The light of the candle, according to the Sefat Emet, illuminates the dark spaces within ourselves that block our true light from shining, along with the corners hiding pieces of hametz. It is an opportunity for an amazing simultaneous process of deep cleaning and honest introspection, as we reflect on the ways we have let our pride lead us astray. Some of us have the tradition of making a list of our internal hametz to burn on the fire. Another source of hametz in our cluttered world is our email inbox, and part of my Peseach prep these days is major deleting of old emails!
We have all the ingredients to make hametz or to make matzah; to be hametz or to be matzah. Our inner and outer work and the power of our intentions help us choose, so that by the time we sit at the seder table, with a new order emerging from the chaos that began at Purim, we shine as a truest, humblest, most honest selves. Like a piece of matzah!