Rethinking Chametz

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's Blog: dated April 4, 2012)

We often hear that hametz – the puffed up, leavened food that we banish from our homes on Passover – represents the less attractive parts of being, our puffed up egos that slowly bloat the boundaries of self and ooze onto the protected space of others. Or the encrusted coating of pride or psychological armor that builds up over time to protect our wounded, vulnerable inner core but that needs to be periodically scraped away so that our souls can breathe and be restored once more.

I like that view and have taught that in years past.

But I am thinking of hametz in a slightly different way this year. What if we thought of hametz not as bad, but as "dirt"?

Mary Douglas, the eminent anthropologist (of Purity and Danger fame), taught that "dirt" was not a thing but a concept, not an essence but an attribution. Dirt is not something that can be scientifically catalogued the way pathogens or bacteria are. You cannot put something under a microscope to see if it is "dirt" or not.

"Dirt" is stuff out of place, something existing where somebody thinks it shouldn't. Just as a weed is a plant growing where you don't want it, so dirt is something being where you don't want it.

This explains a lot. It explains why, for example, when there are clothes all over your son's bedroom floor, you may think the place is "dirty" while he thinks the clothes are just arrayed on the biggest shelf in the room. Or why a child's hair-clippings found in a mother's keepsake box are precious whereas that same hair found on the bathroom floor is a mess.

Which helps me – and challenges me – when I think of hametz.

What is the right place, and time, for things? Why are things that were perfectly good for us yesterday forbidden to us today? How did this thing that is a staple of life on other occasions become so virulent on Passover that it must be totally banished, or at least nullified and transformed?

Perhaps, as Avram suggests, it is a matter of degree. A bit of pride, a bit of ambition, a bit of selfishness is not bad. They are even essential. How else do we build and discover and push beyond contemporary limits without the urgings of ambition or pride, or genuine curiosity? But what dangers lie, as well, in uncontrolled pride, greed and voyeurism? And where do we draw the lines?

Perhaps Pesah is that annual season of line-drawing, re-setting the boundaries, of cleaning out the expanding, crusty accretions of too much pride, too much desire. Perhaps Pesah should be seen as a radical reboot, a cleansing that offers a stark exercise trimming back the excess and re-evaluating the value that guides these impulses. What, Pesah might be asking us, are all those urgings for? What service should we properly put them to?

Perhaps that, too, is why Pesah is a week long. We could not bear to strip ourselves of our protective coatings, rid ourselves of the armor of pride, and return, so exposed, to the unchanged rigors and dangers of the world. We need a week to live in this pristine world of the wilderness, in the company of each other, in a taste of a place where all is in balance, where manna comes with the dew, where the world protects us. We need a week to take in this gift of freedom, to bask unafraid in the presence of each other, to understand where – when we return to the world of hametz – we should direct the power of our urgings.

And then, with that as our armor, return to tangle, or tango, with hametz.

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