by Rabbi Sari Laufer
As a fan of Nancy Drew, I always thought that if I were to write a Jewish version, I had a title already: The Case of the Hidden Chametz. And as a parent of 2 small children, I feel like it is a story that I live each and every Passover season. There is always the possibility of finding food in unexpected places, even as I try to instill rules and habits around eating and cleaning. In fact, nothing fills me with more dread than the thought of trying to clean my car for Passover. And, unlike the kitchen, it seems one cannot simply take a blowtorch to one’s car…so, crumb-hunting I will be.
Lo yera’eh lecha chametz…bechol gevulecha – “No chametz shall be visible to you in all your boundaries,” the Torah teaches, and from that verse—a million rules were launched. The laws of Passover preparation are onerous at best. Unlike the general rules of keeping kosher, which leave some wiggle room for mistakes or places you might have overlooked, there is no leniency in the rules for Passover; the rabbis teach that even if ONE CRUMB of chametz falls into your biggest pot of chicken soup….the whole mixture is rendered forbidden for Passover. To avoid any accidents, then, the halacha (the Jewish law) is crystal clear: there should be NO chametz in your possession! And what is chametz? Chametz refers to food containing any amount of wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt, that has leavened, or “puffed up.”
A quick Google search yielded a pretty solid list of Passover bloopers in our Nancy Drew tale. Someone told the story of the family who cleaned meticulously well, and then turned on the air conditioning just before the seder and “a bajillion Cheerios came flying out of the vents.” Or the family who looked up during the seder only to find spaghetti stuck to the ceiling. Or a throwback story of finding a bagel in the VCR. All of this to say—it is REALLY hard to get rid of all of that chametz.
Luckily for us, it was probably equally difficult to clean for Passover in the Middle Ages, so the leading authorities created a work-around. We are allowed to “sell” our chametz for the duration of the holiday. For a nominal cost, someone in our life who does not need to observe these rules (someone who is not Jewish by birth, choice, or affiliation) can “own” them for the holiday, and then the ownership reverts back. In larger Jewish communities, there is a two-step process; you turn over the ownership of your chametz to a leader of the community, and that person sells all the communal chametz. If you want Rabbi Yoshi and the clergy team to handle your chametz—CLICK HERE to fill out your transfer form.
Now, all of this is well and good for your Cheerios and good Scotch, but you are not off the hook yet. Because in the midst of the very physical preparations for Passover, we do not want to forget about the spiritual preparation needed to move us from slavery to freedom, from our narrow places to an expansive life.
I wrote this last year for our Passover Haggadah Supplement (stay tuned for this year’s supplement, coming soon!), but it is a reminder each year—and perhaps you do too:
Because while chametz is literally any one of 5 specific grains that has puffed up, our tradition has long understood it to be a metaphor as well, for the things that puff us up, that keep us in our own narrow places. Noam Zion, an Israeli scholar, writes that “Yeast came to symbolize arrogance because the bread raised itself above the level of matzah though it was only filled with pockets of hot air. Yeast is also a catalyst that symbolizes the restless force of the evil inclination (yetzer ha-ra). Just as yeast causes fermentation in bread and wine, it also turns them sour when not controlled. Similarly, the instinctual forces, desire and ambition, can contribute to progress but also to discontent and corruption.” Passover is 6 months into the Jewish year; halfway to the New Year. It is a holiday of reckoning and of redemption, and in the search for physical chametz, there lies a spiritual question and task for each of us: What puffs us up? Which of our desires, or ambitions, has turned sour? And, what do we need to leave behind to walk forward to liberation?
As the new month of Nissan begins, Ben, Kobi, Orli, and I wish you a Passover filled with joy.