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Parshat Tzav and Pesach 5767: Bedikat Chameitz – Who are we Deluding?

by in Pesach, Tzav .


Vayikra, 6:2

The Sale of Chameitz is not a sham, it is a very deep spiritual practice

Selling your chameitz[1] (unleaven bread etc. forbidden to eat or possess on Pesach) when you know very well that after Pesach you will receive it all back untouched! Running around the house with a candle and feather looking for ten pieces of chameitz that you or your children have just hidden away! Who are we deluding?

Every Mitzvah, every Halacha, is an artistic expression of mounds of wisdom and knowledge that we call “the Torah of that Mitzvah”. Think of a Mitzvah as the tip of a massive iceberg that lies hidden beneath the surface. So little of the size and shape of the iceberg can be appreciated from seeing only its tip. The same applies to a Mitzvah, it is only the tip of so much wisdom. The wisdom is contained in the Torah of that Mitzvah. Sometimes, the artistic expression – the Ma’aseh haMitzvah (the act of the Mitzvah) – without the understanding of its relevant Torah, can appear irrational and even absurd. This is so in the case of selling chameitz, searching for it and burning it.

Each Mitzvah has its Torah

Our Parsha opens with a statement “Vezot torat ha’olah” (This, is the Torah of the Olah offering). What we are about to be given is not merely a description of the activity, but insight into the Torah that underpins the Ma’aseh HaKorban (the act of the offering), its artistic expression. Chazal learn from this phrase that “Ha’oseik beTorat haOlah, ke’ilu hikriv Olah” (one who reflects deeply on the Torah of the Olah offering is considered as if he had actually brought that offering).

The Sefat Emmet [2] says: “The intention of an offering is the learning and practical outcome that results for a person from the offering”. He explains that performing a Mitzvah, and studying and reflecting on its Torah both impact a person. However, the impacts of performing a Mitzvah and that of learning its Torah are qualitatively different. When you perform a Mitzvah, a unique positive energy emanating from that Mitzvah attaches itself to you. But that energy is not necessarily sustained. It can wear off or be removed by negative activity and thought. Not so when you reflect and work with the ideas, wisdom, insights and Torah that underlie that Mitzvah. When you open your heart and mind to the Torah you are studying and reflecting upon, it penetrates your being, seeps into your soul, and molds your character. That does not wear off. That effect never detaches or erodes, even when we act negatively.
Ideally, the Sefat Emmet explains, there should be a dimension of Torah reflection in every Mitzvah we do. That is the meaning of theBeracha we say before a Mitzvah. In the Beracha we make reference to G-d’s commandment “asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu” (who sanctified us with his commandments and instructed us…). That is the moment we are meant to be reflecting on the essence of the Torah wisdom in the Oral Law and absorbing it into our beings, so that the act of the Mitzvah, the artistic expression, is steeped in learning and knowledge. It is in the insights, the appreciation of the meaning, the knowledge of that Mitzvah’s Torah, that people differentiate and personalize their ma’asei haMitzvot (actions of Mitzvah). The mere acting out of the ritual is undifferentiated.  The action is not the platform for self-expression because Halachah standardizes the action. The knowledge, understanding, insights and meaning of the Mitzvah’s Torah are the platforms for uniqueness, depth, and individual self-expression.

Bedikat Chameitz: learning the art of detachment

So getting back to bedikat chameitz u’viuro (the searching forchameitz and its destruction), we know the standardized undifferentiated practices involved, the artistic movements and actions. But what is its Torah? What are the learning points? On what should you reflect as you say the relevant berachot and perform the Mitzvah? 
Bedikat Chameitz (searching for Chameitz) is the first teaching inMasechet Pesachim (Tractate of Talmud that deals with Pesach), and like most opening statements, to a degree sets the tone for the entire Masechet. The teaching should not be seen just as a series of laws pertaining to searching for Chameitz. Rather this section of Talmud defines our relationship with Chameitz on Pesach. The insight we gain from studying this section is that the Mitzvah of Bi’ur Chameitz (destruction of chameitz) is not about destroying the object(s) of chameitz. It is about destroying our attachment tochameitz.

We can destroy our attachment either by destruction of the object or by undergoing a process to detach ourselves from the object.  If we choose to burn our chameitz, then the burning is only a strategy by which to fulfill the mitzvah of detachment; it is not the objective of the Mitzvah itself. The essence of the Mitzvah then is learning and practicing the art of detachment. 
What is it from which we are detaching ourselves on Pesach? What is the difference between chameitz and matzah? They both have the same nutritional value. It is just that yeast has been introduced intochameitz to ferment the flour and generate a gas that causes the dough to rise. Chameitz then, is matzah with a lot of hot air!Chameitz is the ego. The Yeitzer HaRahPesach is the time we practice detachment from ego. We revisit our humble slave origins. We re-experience our total dependence on G-d. We relive our desert lives when we had no property. Our status was a function of our stature rather than of what we possessed or the positions we occupied. We spent forty years shedding personal and national ego. Now we recapture that detachment once a year and try to preserve it throughout.

What is our process of detachment? Firstly, we understand whatchameitz is and we identify our egos with it. Then during the process of cleaning our homes we cleanse our souls. This is not unique to Judaism. The philosophy of Feng Shui[3] teaches the cleansing effect of detaching yourself from objects and possessions when you clear your clutter to create living space. The climax is a spiritual practice called bedikat chameitz when we symbolically check the corners and crevices of our homes for any left over chameitz. This practice has a practical application in being a final check before Pesach. But more importantly it is the time to search for ego within ourselves. The final act of detachment has two steps: First we cast the chameitz leftovers into a fire[4]; second, we declare that anychameitz that we might still have in our possession has no meaning or value to us, we detach ourselves mentally, commercially and emotionally from it. Selling our chameitz is another expression of detachment.

Your own spiritual practice

The night, between bedikat chameitz and its burning the next morning, I find to be a specially appropriate time to reflect and meditate on my ego and to detach from it. You might like to try it too. Sitting upright, quietly without interruption, breath deeply and relax your mind. Focus first on your breath, and then on the feelings deep in your chest: in your heart. Think of the people you love. Question yourself: Who am I really? What is really important to me? What am I feeling right now? Then consider the things that have made you angry, resentful, jealous, hurt, and check in with yourself. Did my feelings result from my true self having been damaged or my ego having been bruised? Check in with the time you have spent pursuing various activity. How much was driven by your true self, your values; and how much by the needs of your ego for recognition and control? Try to identify your ego. Try to see it for the empty hot air that it is. Try to separate it from the inherent nutrients of the bread of life: your family, your values, your G-d. Then, still breathing slowly and deeply, vision yourself holding your ego in the palm of your hand. See how small and puny it really is. Crumple it and cast it into a burning bon-fire. See the flash of fire as it is consumed. The plume of smoke. The crackle. The stillness. That, is biur chamietz!


[1] This refers to the Jewish practice of selling chameitz to a non-Jew before Pesach, and repurchasing it (usually for a higher price than the price at which non-Jew purchased). This is done to avoid owning chameitz on Pesach. The Torah explicitly says that our chameitz shall not be found on our premises during Pesach. If the chameitz on our premises does not belong to us but to a non-Jew, it may remain on our premises provided we do not engage with it in any way.
[2] The Geirer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib, in his essays on the Parsha from 5631.
[3] A Chinese system of laws considered to govern spatial arrangement and orientation in relation to the flow of energy.
[4] Many native American tribes have the custom of casting notes or objects that represent something of the past, into a fire to help people detach from them.

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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