At the beginning of the night of the 14th of Nisan (the evening before Passover), check for chametz (leavened products) by the light of a candle, in the holes and in the hidden spots, in all the places that chametz might have entered.
The Shulkhan Arukh, 431:1, 16th Century codified source of Jewish Law
As I begin my Passover cleaning, I am keeping my eyes on the prize: a home that is free of chametz. The quote above describes the final act of Passover cleaning. This experience, performed in the dark, with one tiny flame, reminds us that although we are each small individuals — and a small people — we have a profound impact on our own redemption.
On the night before Passover, after all of our cupboards have been cleaned of chametz and our kitchens have been made kosher for Passover, Jews all over the world search their homes with a candle in one hand and a feather and wooden spoon in the other. Tradition tells us to plant little pieces of bread throughout our homes, and then, in the dark of night, to search for them. These pieces of chametz are then collected and burned the next morning, before we say the final proclamation ridding ourselves of any chametz that we may have unwittingly missed in our cleaning.
This ritual — which is great fun for little ones — is not only about Passover cleaning. Chametz symbolizes the swollen parts that exist within us — our egos, our wrongdoings, our imperfections. The process of cleaning out our cupboards is symbolic of the internal cleaning we desire to do at this time of year.
Why, then, does the Shulkhan Arukh tell us to do this final act of cleaning in the depths of the night? Would it not make more sense to do this in broad daylight, when all can be seen?
No. We engage in this final search in darkness of the night for a reason. On the night before Pesach, as we stand with a candle in hand, we recognize that there is much darkness in our world, and that we are continually in need of redemption — both in our own personal lives and in the universal human struggles that plague our larger communities. We acknowledge that this redemption cannot come without our commitment to being the very candle we hold. It is our job to be the flame, truly shining our light into the darkness, into the crevices and holes that are filled with our personal chametz; by facing our most personal struggles, we begin our self-improvement for the coming year. We must not limit our light to our own crevices, however. We must also shine our light into the larger world, illuminating the various ills of society and doing our part to solve our more universal problems.
The Sfat Emet, a 19th Century Chasidic Commentator, teaches that we each have a pure kernel of God within us. This kernal is renewed each year at Passover, and it is our job, for the remainder of the year, to allow this kernal to emerge and expand to spread this deep goodness.
This kernal is our candle, our flame.
Each Passover we tell of our past redemption and we dream of our redemption in the future. May we strive this Passover to move from dream to action. May we connect with that Godly flame inside of ourselves, and may we embody it. May we allow that light to shine brightly in the dark areas of our lives, spotlighting the corners where there is chametz, and enabling us to become better individuals as we work to create a more just world.
Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim in which we recall the survival of the Jewish people against the attempted genocide by Haman, the chief adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Every year we rejoice on the holiday of Purim just a few short weeks prior to entering the season of Passover and I believe that this is not at all a coincidence.
The story of Purim is the story of a Jewish community that had forgotten who it was. It is the story of a highly acculturated and integrated community into the larger Persian society. A Jewish woman named Hadassah changes her name to the Persian Esther and marries the King and no one even comments on this intermarriage in the account offered in the Book of Esther. [However, there is much rabbinic conversation on this subject offered in the Talmud.]
It is within this backdrop that Esther’s uncle Mordechai resists the wholesale neglect of the particular in favor of the universal and takes a stand, which is decidedly not a bow, against the phenomenon. He is singled out by Haman in particular for punishment and the entire Jewish people broadly. In a society marked by expected cultural conformity, one cannot have any sub-group demonstrating their uniqueness, living a counter-cultural life, so the decree issued by the government under Haman is nothing less than total annihilation.
To save the Jewish people Mordechai guides Esther to see who she really is and to be true to herself and to her husband, the King. In so doing she raises her mask from upon her face and embraces her destiny. Esther becomes a symbol for all the Jews in the empire to also raise their respective masks, the societally and the self-imposed barriers to full Jewish expression, and through their collective action and their renewed pride, overcome the challenge set before them and survive.
The message of Purim is an essential one for the work of self-reflection that the time of Passover calls us to. Passover, as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, is not only about our physical liberation from Egypt. It is not only about our miraculous rescue from the grip of oppression and the entering into the daylight of freedom from the nighttime of torment. Passover is about defining us as a people. It is about preparing us to be ready to stand at Mount Sinai only a short while later and receive the Book that would transform human civilization for all time.
To be able to experience a Passover in our lives and to be able to relive the account of the Exodus as our tradition commands of us (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5) we need to be able to lift the masks from our faces that work to hide us and to conceal us from ourselves and from others. The transition from Purim to Passover is about being ready to be capable of redemption. The first step in that redemptive process is reclaiming who we are – not who we act as or who we present ourselves as, but who we are at the deepest levels of our selves.
After hours of excruciating labor, the sweetest sound that can be heard is that of a crying baby. That first cry lets us know that this new child has working lungs and can breathe. But that cry doesn’t only represent physical health – it also symbolizes emotional sensitivity, the ability to connect, the desire to love and to be loved. When we read this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Shemot – if we listen closely, we just might be able to hear this cry. This is the cry that the midwives refused to turn their backs on, refused to silence, refused to discard. This is the cry that demanded a response, propelling the midwives to ignore Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish boys. This is the cry of humanity, of justice, of a better tomorrow.
This is only the first of a handful of cries in our portion. The second comes from Moses, as he lies helpless in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter hears his sobs, and responds – feeling compassion for this small child. It is this cry that wakes up a young woman, removing her from the cruel ways of her father’s home, and softening her heart.
And then there is the cry of Bnai Yisrael (the People Israel), yearning for God to help elevate them from their misery. It is only after God hears these cries that God can respond. And likewise, it is only after God cries out to Moses – saying “Moshe! Moshe!” at the burning bush – that Moses can respond to God, and be God’s partner in freeing the slaves.
I love that this Torah portion falls right before Martin Luther King Day. A man who cried out for freedom and equality for all people, Dr. King articulated the necessity of the cry, and the urgency of the response. Both Dr. King and our Torah portion remind us that we cannot simply sit back and allow injustice to flourish. We must have the courage to cry out, from the top of our lungs, and from the top of a mountain. And we must have the conviction to respond, listening closely, making space for the small cries of those who are downtrodden, refusing to turn our backs on the pain, prejudice, and alienation that still exists in our very communities.
This Shabbat, as we read from the book of Exodus, may we commit to the tremendous task of making Dr. King’s dream a reality.