On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- M'tzora: Shabbat HaGadol:Spiritual Cleansing

This week is Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat right before Passover. Rabbi Rick Jacobs notes this is the time when many of us are getting ready for Passover and cleaning out our chametz - leaven goods. But cleaning is about more than just getting rid of leftover bread. It's about getting spiritually ready, and cleansing ourselves of our own unnecessary habits or baggage.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less.

This is a special week, though. It's Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat just prior to Passover. So, Rabbi Jacobs took the opportunity to teach a little bit about Passover. And he starts to ask questions like, who helps you do your own personal and spiritual cleaning?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath immediately preceding the holiday of Passover. And if you're somewhere in the solar system, you probably have noticed, if you've been to any supermarkets, there are stacks of matzah and marshmallows and Barton's candy and all kinds of stuff telling you, get ready for Passover.

So, I'm guessing that you've got some of those reminders. But this week, we're going to focus Shabbat HaGadol-- and again, the reason it's called Shabbat HaGadol, which is the Big Sabbath, is traditionally, it was the time of year that the rabbi gave the longest sermon, which I believe is probably the favorite sermon. Because people think longer is better. “Rabbi, that was only 20 minutes. Couldn't you have spoken longer?”

So, it was the longest sermon, and always about how to prepare and understand the ritual requirements more precisely. It comes from the haftarah, which talks about the day of God, which is going to be a Yom Gadol, the end of the prophet Mal'achi in chapter three And that end of the Days of Redemption that is going to come.

I want to focus in on one word. It's a big word for Passover. It's called chameitz. If you're from a more Yiddish, Ashkenazi background, you might hear “chometz.” Chameitz is the stuff that bread and pasta are inspired by. It's the thing that puffs up food. And it's the thing that we are forbidden from eating during the holiday.

So, in the Torah, we have pretty specific requirements. The word is based on chameitz. And it is something that is made from five species of grain-- wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. And it is activated with some kind of leavening, and then baked for 18 minutes. That makes matzah.

But the thing that goes on a little bit-- if you go longer than 18 and you have some kind of things that make food tasty and delicious and soft, that's chameitz. So, in Passover time, we actually eat food that doesn't have that, that's made according to the ritual, stringent ways in which matzah is made, or matzah meal. And therefore, we can do all the cakes and all the things that come with that.

So, I just want to point out, if you've never spent Passover in Israel, they hire chameitz inspectors to go around and make sure that there's no public selling or eating of chameitz during Passover. So just think about it. I call it the chameitz police. They wear a uniform. And they zero in. They go to the supermarket and say, “look, there's something that's forbidden during Passover! And it's visible. It should be covered. It should be sold. It should be removed.” All the things that traditionally are done. And there was a big, big to-do the last couple of years about hospitals in Israel, and whether you could bring chameitz.

Let's assume you weren't Jewish. They're a fifth of the people who live in Israel are not Jewish, let alone those who are Jewish but not traditionally observant. And the guards that keep the hospitals safe-- make sure you don't bring in any kind of explosive devices-- they were checking bags, not for explosive devices alone. But they were looking for chameitz.

And on one level, I live in New York. And I'm thinking, there a lot of very traditional people here. But we don't have chameitz inspectors on the subway or policing the restaurants and trying to remove-- part of the holiday is making decisions about how we live.

Well, it turns out, there's a beautiful tradition of becoming chameitz inspectors. It's called the bedikat chameitz, the search the night before Pesach I remember when my kids were little, this was the magical time. We would hide little pieces of bread, wrapped, and put it in very secret places behind chairs, underneath furniture.

And the kids-- we have a feather and a little candle. And we'd go around the house looking for the chameitz. And then we would find it. And we'd sweep it up with the little feather into a bag. And then the next morning, to burn it.

Well, honestly, all the neighborhood kids came over. It was the best thing. “God, it's so good to be Jewish. You get to do a chameitz search?” This is absolutely magical. And I just remember that a lot of times, in less traditional circles, people didn't know about this, let alone do it. And it's magical.

That feels like the right kind of chameitz police to have, where you're doing a symbolic searching out. Now one of the things that's happened very recently is people are getting into the spiritual definition of chameitz, and not just the leavening in bread, or what happens in pasta, or in cakes, and all those cookies, and all those things that are not for Passover. And it turns out, there's a traditional category, because chameitz is also the thing inside of our souls that puffs us up.

You've all met somebody who's puffed up. They're a little too full of themselves. And they think that the world was created for them and for them alone. And I love that, in the Hasidic tradition and even back in the Talmud, you have some of these teachings.

In tractate Berakhot of the Babylonian Talmud, page 17a, we have-- Rabbi Alexandria, when he was finished praying, would add the following: “Sovereign of the universe, it is known full well to you that our will is to do your will. What prevents us from doing so? Well, the yeast in the dough and our subjugation to influences.”

And then the Talmud says the following conclusion: “May it be our will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to performing the statutes of Your will with perfect heart.” It already connects that there's the thing to purify our personalities, our daily behavior.

And that's actually-- you can't hire the police to walk around and go, you look a little too puffed up. You should be a little bit more connected to the people around you and to the realities of life. And I love these spiritual things, because I want to be obsessed with being ritually observant on Passover. I take it really seriously. We clear out all the chameitz from our house.

But to be honest, there's a deeper part, which is to cleanse ourselves, to make ourselves better, more refined, more whole, and frankly, more the people God wants us to be.

What I love is-- there's a beautiful teaching that I found from a wonderful woman. Her name is Haviva Ner-David. I think she's one of the very first women to be ordained as a rabbi. And she has a beautiful teaching that, one of the things after she clears out all the chameitz and cleanses everything, and washes the cupboards, and does all this incredible preparation, that she makes a list of all the things she's trying to, in a sense, rid her soul of. All those behaviors-- the pettiness, the meanness, the small-minded way in which we fail every day ourselves and those around us.

And she writes them on a piece of paper. And along with chameitz, the morning of the first Seder, she burns that list, just as a reminder that there's a deeper spiritual goal for the holiday and for the cleansing of that substance.

So, if I've made you confused, if you're just thinking, wait, wait, wait, wait. Are we getting rid of the leaven in our houses and all that forbidden for Passover food? Or are we focusing on our own behaviors and our own personal characteristics?

And I would say, I think it's a both/and. So, I'd like us to get serious, not only about the physical way in which our house and our homes look, but the way that we take this as an opportunity to grow and deepen who we are. And Passover has a million ways that it can do that. And ritual, when its powerful, makes us better people.

So, you may want to do a little searching. You might want to do a little bedikat chameitz the night before. You may want to also push back in a community that wants to police other people's observance. I think we should live in a very pluralistic Jewish world. And people should be as traditional or as non-traditional as they want. That's a good thing.

And I hope in Israel, they'll not be as busy finding chameitz and maybe finding the things that make society more contentious, more divisive, more hostile. Those are characteristics I hope that we would help root out -- and root out through love and through care and through attention.

So, we're getting ready for the holiday. You're going to buy some things. You're going to make some special foods. Let's not lose the big takeaway, which is at the end of our seven or eight days of Passover observance, not only will we long for that first pizza that we eat, not only will we be very happy to see bread and roll and cereal and all those things, but that after the holiday, we'll be better. And we'll be more closely aligned to the most purposeful and deep self that we can be.

So, find that chameitz wherever you find it in your cupboard or in your heart. And let's see if we can rid ourselves of that substance that puffs up food and puffs up people and keeps us from being who we are. Shabbat HaGadol is here to remind us to get ready. We've got a whole week. For some of us who are listening to the podcast early in this week, you can have a week and a half. So, plenty of time for spiritual preparation. Let's do it for all the parts of our holiday. And let's be as serious about the chameitz in our souls as the chameitz in our homes.

Chag Sameach. May your preparations be holy. And may your observance bring you wholeness.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!