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The Power of Ritual

Among the most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood is the pre-Passover ritual of Bedikat Hametz, the search for leaven (fermented flour). In the days preceding the holiday, my mother would have scrubbed, scoured, and vacuumed every corner of our apartment in the Bronx. My father would have mounted the ladder to remove all of the tightly packaged cartons of Passover china and cutlery stashed all year in the upper reaches of the coat closets and to replace them with all of our year-round eating implements. My mother would have taken me through every drawer in my room, emptying it to make sure that no crumb, no piece of chewing gum, was lodged in a crevice.

And then, on the evening before the first evening of the holiday, all lights would be turned off, and my father would light a candle, take a feather, a wooden spoon, and a piece of cardboard fashioned as a combustible dustpan, and have me search by candlelight for a piece of stale bread intentionally left in each room to be “discovered” and whisked with the feather into to cardboard pan. Next, climactically, in his deepest incantatory baritone, my father would declare in Aramaic: “Any bit of leaven in my possession of which I am unaware is annulled and ownerless, like the dust of the earth!” The collected bread would then be wrapped and burned the following morning outside, on the sidewalk, in my mother’s metal wash pail.

Finally, the best part! We would walk around the corner to Teddy’s Paradise Grocery and purchase a kosher-for-Passover Israeli Elite bittersweet chocolate bar. No wonder I have such sweet memories!

The commandment to rid your dwellings of leaven and to eat only matzah (unleavened bread) is found in the Book of Exodus (12:19-20). During the week of Passover, Jews reenact the exodus from Egyptian slavery, undergoing our own process of internal liberation and recommitting to the struggle for liberation of all peoples. As the Israelites hurried out of Egyptian bondage on the night of the new moon and thus could not wait for the yeast to rise, so do we eat unleavened bread to remind ourselves of the value of freedom.

In addition, through a biblical lens, leaven is seen as less pure. No leaven could touch the altar in the Temple, as if it somehow obstructed the divine-human connection. Over the centuries, Jews have interpreted the eradication of leaven as an internal process. What internal leaven keeps me enslaved to habit, to memory, to old wounds? What leaven prevents me from opening to divine blessings?

When I reached adolescence, the search for the ritual of leaven appeared primitive and embarrassing—the epitome of the problem, in my self-confident eyes, with ritual altogether. Declaring a crumb to be nonexistent was superstitious magic!

Now, I see things differently. The search for every last crumb and the verbal nullification of whatever crumb remains is a powerful spiritual device. I have exhausted myself physically and mentally with ridding my home of all leaven. I have felt enslaved to the commandment to expunge all leaven. And then, I face my limitations. I have done the best I can and that’s enough. Any crumbs left behind no longer exist. I am free, no longer enslaved.

Internal freedom is like that as well. I am not as honest as I’d like to be, not as compassionate, not as generous, not as loving. There is a tyranny in setting expectations of ourselves and others that are unattainable. There is a freedom that comes with self-forgiveness and self-compassion, with acknowledging that even though I will never find every last crumb, my home is kosher for Passover.

The Israelites whom Moses led out of Egyptian slavery were not completely free. They remained psychologically enslaved. They complained a lot. They were impatient and demanding and fearful. But they were liberated from their Egyptian taskmasters. They were freer than before.

So may it be this week for all of us.


Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/the-power-of-ritual.

Type: Essay

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