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Passover: Chametz of the soul

"They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."

There is a proverbial joke that each Jewish holiday has the same theme. We tell some story about past persecution, we celebrate the fact that the Jewish people survived, and then we enjoy a meal.

I would like, once and for all, to get rid of this joke.

The problem with it is that, for many Jews, it's not really a joke, but rather an accurate reflection of how they understand the purpose and meaning of the holiday.

The retelling of the story of the Jewish people going from slavery to freedom is only the first level of meaning for a holiday like Passover.

In fact, Passover is really asking a series of deep and compelling questions and not simply retelling the Exodus story.

As Jews all over the world symbolically reenact the experience of being slaves and eventually being redeemed, we are also being asked to look into our lives and contemplate the question: "While we may not be enslaved to a literal Pharaoh in a political sense, most of us are enslaved to all sorts of spiritual and emotional "Pharaohs." This could be enslavement to success, to technology, to popularity, or even to the goal of being happy.

While each of these possibilities is probably worth a full column, I want to focus on one particular interpretation of a type of spiritual or emotional enslavement with which many of us struggle — arrogance and bitterness that can interfere with relationships, work, and our sense of contentment.

The centerpiece of the Passover holiday is the prohibition on eating leavened products (chametz).

The basic reason for the prohibition emerges from the Exodus narrative itself where the Torah relates that the Israelites left Egypt in such haste they did not have time to let their bread rise.

Accordingly, Jews not only avoid eating leavened products, but many of us engage in an almost obsessive cleaning process to remove them from our homes, offices and even from our cars (check out the line at the car wash a day or two before Passover in neighborhoods with a lot of Jews).

In the Chasidic tradition a supplemental explanation is given. In addition to the reason mentioned above, leaven must also be removed because of what it represents spiritually. From the perspective of Jewish law, leaven (chametz) is the by-product of mixing water with specific grains that are allowed to sit long enough to begin to ferment. During this process, they will not only puff up and rise, but also sour a bit.

This is the focus of the Chasidic masters. For them, the puffiness and sourness of leaven represents more than a chemical process that takes place in grain, it is something that also happens in our hearts and souls. The puffiness of the bread is equated with the human tendency to puff ourselves up leading to arrogance and haughtiness. The sourness is equated with ways in which people can become emotionally sour and stuck in petty personal conflicts and jealousies.

Accordingly, the purpose of removing leaven from our homes is not just to commemorate what happened long ago. It is also to use the cleaning as a ritual practice that internalizes a deeper spiritual cleansing that is supposed to take place.

In other words, the purpose of purging our homes from bread is really to force us to purge ourselves of arrogance or bitterness. The deeper meaning of Passover cleaning then, is to free ourselves from the ways that we might be enslaved to our egos, our senses of entitlement, and our bitterness.

This is just one example but I think it proves the point that if all we can say about a Jewish holiday is "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat," we are really missing the full richness and contemporary spiritual meaning that each of the holidays can have in our lives.