I don’t like cleaning. I don’t know anyone who does. So when Pesah draws near, we begin to wonder what we did to deserve this new form of slavery. It’s pretty sad that the joke greeting around this time is “Hag kasher o-sameah–have a happy or a kosher Passover,” as if the effort that goes into making Pesah ritually fit and the emotion of happiness are mutually exclusive phenomena.
My wife likes to remind me that “it’s hametz, not cooties” when I get uptight about the state of the kitchen. She’s right, of course, but there has to be a reason that we take the removal of hametz from our homes so seriously. If it’s not cooties, and it’s actually something we enjoy guilt-free the other 357 days of the year, what is it about hametz that makes it substanta non grata during Passover?
In his wonderful commentary on the Haggadah called Leading the Passover Journey, Rabbi Nathan Laufer offers a terrific theory abouthametz. We know that matzah is Lehem ‘Oni, the bread of poverty. But we don’t always make the cognitive leap about the corollary status ofhametz, which must then be “rich man’s bread.” Matzah is of course what the Israelites ate on the way out of Egypt; but it may even be what they ate as slaves. It certainly is a baked good symbolic of their lives as slaves who knew of nothing good. “The matzot reflected their very existence: a dry, flat monotony of endless labor under pressure of time from dawn to dusk, every day of every week of the year.” (Laufer, p. 2)
Hametz, on the other hand, is not merely what the Egyptians ate; it’s what they ate at our expense. They could afford “rich man’s bread” because they had a work force that toiled for nothing in return. It’s like a business padding its profit margin by removing all payroll expenses. Such ill-gotten gain is unfathomable to us, but that’s slavery in a nutshell. And we don’t just say we were liberated from slavery; we emerged from the spiritually bankrupt environment of a system that denied us our humanity.
Laufer explains why we are so fanatical in our quest to get rid ofhametz: “On Passover, chametz. rich man’s bread, is the embodiment of that spiritual contamination and unjust enrichment and is therefore taboo. On Passover, chametz becomes morally repugnant in the Jewish tradition because it symbolizes what is called in the American tort law the product of “unclean hands.” Therefore, even an infinitesimal amount of chametz on Passover renders everything it comes in contact with impermissible for consumption during the duration of the festival” (p. 4).
I still don’t like cleaning, but now I know hametz isn’t cooties. During Pesah, it’s worse than cooties! If a few days of hard time with cleansing chemicals will remind us never to be like Pharaoh, it’s time well-spent.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,
Rabbi David Wise