Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spiritual Realism and Passover Cleaning

It's one of my least favorite times of the year: Passover cleaning. You had to clean your abode so thoroughly that there is not a crumb of chametz (חמץ‎‎) left (Exodus 12:19, Deuteronomy 16:4). What is חמץ‎‎? It is the leavened food derived from the five grains (wheat, barley, oat, rye, and spelt) that are forbidden to own or even eat on Passover. 

I am captivated by the comparison between חמץ and מצה (matzah, or unleavened bread). מצה is made of flour and water; so is חמץ. Chemically speaking, the only difference between the two is that the latter is fermented, which puffs the dough into bonafide bread. In slightly different terms, the Jewish tradition compares חמץ to the ego. We are supposed to realize that much like חמץ, our egos create puffed-up illusions. It distorts our sense of humility, and thus our sense of reality. By partaking in the seemingly mundane act of removing חמץ, we remind ourselves to remove the inflated aspects of our ego and to live life based on who we are, nothing more and nothing less.

While I commenced the cleaning process this afternoon, I thought to myself, "Is it possible to fulfill this law to the letter? Can you really get rid of every last crumb of חמץ?" You might think to yourself that there is a theoretical possibility of cleaning your home in its entirety. More than not, guess what gets in the way of a good theory? Putting the theory into practice. 

Think for a moment the level of diligence that would have to be involved to make sure you have completely rid yourself of חמץ. It's not simply a matter of vacuuming the floor once in hopes you sucked up all the crumbs. You have to clean out your cabinets, stove, sinks, oven, and fridge. You have to move your couch and clean behind the couch to make sure nothing fell behind it. You have to clean your dishes and silverware to make sure that there is not a crumb on them. Not only that, but you have to check your clothes to make sure you're clean. Take it a step further: if you want to be that strict, you have to go through every page of every book to make sure there are no crumbs between the pages. 

This level of meticulousness is enough to drive a person crazy, or to put it into Yiddish parlance, משוגע. You might not have the proper lighting to see some חמץ between a certain crevasse. There might be a certain spot in your house that is literally unreachable. Some crumbs might blend into the carpet all too well. The חמץ might come in some form you didn't think or conceive of, such as ethyl alcohol. You might have forgotten to clean a certain area. There might have been a place where you would have not even thought to search for חמץ, such as between book pages. You might have gotten so fed up with the insanely high standards of the project that you abandon the endeavor altogether. 

Translate the previous paragraph into the spiritual realm and try to translate it into our quotidian, spiritual lives. G-d didn't create us as angels. We are human, and as King Solomon (שלמה המלך) reminds us in Ecclesiastes 7:20, "there is no man is so righteous that he doesn't sin." There is going to be something that we don't see, can't see, or have become so discontented that we don't even care to see when dealing with ourselves and the extent to which our egos have become overinflated. 

Does that mean we stop trying? Absolutely not! G-d sets the bar so high not because He wants us to fail, but because He wants us to treat a relationship with Him as a journey, not a destination. At the end of the fifth chapter of Pirke Avot, it says that "according to the effort is the reward." Regardless of where we are in life, we are meant to put in the effort to improve upon our character development. We are meant to get rid of as much spiritual distortions in our lives as possible. 

Much like with our Passover cleaning, our character development will never be 100% perfect. That much should be discerned from common sense. However, by having us clean our houses for חמץ, we are reminded to do our utmost not only in performing ritualistic mitzvot for Him, but also in our relations with others.

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