This message first appeared in the March bulletin of Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam, NY.
Shalom Sons of Israel!
When I think of cleaning for Passover, I like to remind myself that the Jewish calendar has several New Years. Nissan (the Hebrew month when Passover falls) was the first month of the Biblical calendar of the Hebrews (Exodus 12:2). But Jews today celebrate their New Year as Rosh Hashanah (literally “The Head of the Year”) during the month Tishrei, six months after Passover. Paralleling the High Holidays of Tishrei as a time for repentance and the mental purging of our sins, Passover demands an affirmation of Jewish identity and the physical purging of hametz—any food product containing leavened grain.
There’s nothing wrong with bread, but, on Passover, the things we let leaven remind us of bad habits we have let linger for too long. There’s nothing wrong with an ice cream every once in a while, but several gallons of ice cream each day could easily lead you to health problems (if not financial ones as well). There’s nothing wrong with liking ice cream, but getting addicted to it can become a hazard. Passover says that, since we can still use grains to make unleavened bread (matzah), our ingredients may be okay, but our recipes might not be kosher.
An ice cream addiction is minuscule compared to the myriad of problems of quantities, portions or frequency that people often face. Overeating, obsessive compulsive washing of hands, and excessive exercise all begin with a good habit: eating, cleaning, or exercising. But too much of a good thing rarely ends up a good thing. You can end up with a heart problem, with cracked hands, or over-exhausted. The problem is never the good thing, but our addiction to the good thing.
For many people with an addiction to a particular food or drink, the easiest solution is to quit cold-turkey. But that food or drink is often (though not always) healthy in moderation. Refraining from eating chocolate does not necessarily absolve us of an addiction of eating chocolate. In fact, the chocolate addiction may just be lying dormant, waiting to resurface as soon as we take our first piece of chocolate in X number of years.
On one level Pesach cleaning is about getting rid of all the bread, cereal, alcohol or what-have-you that is hametz and inappropriate for the season. But on another level, it’s about getting used to not having to throw out the food in the first place. If we have a lot of hametz in the house before Passover, we might want to give away the food to those in need, or perhaps sell it to a non-Jew until the end of the holiday. (By the way, all of this runs counter to my instinctive strategy: gobble it all up fast before the holiday!) The hard part about Passover cleaning is not the fact that we have all this hametz. The hard part is that we don’t know the best way to get rid of the hametz. So too, when we know we have addictive habits we have to get rid of, the problem isn’t just getting rid of “the problem-food.” The problem is getting rid of the addiction.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788) taught about cleansing ourselves of sins and bad habits: “If the root itself of our downfall is not erased from our heart, then that bad root becomes linked to our heart… and it remains as it is” (Parashat Ki Tissa, Peri Ha’aretz, adapted).
Getting rid of old hametz is too easy. On this holiday of liberation, think instead of how much freer we can be if we rid our hearts of old habits that tie us down.