Anticipating the Return of Chametz

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Judah Kerbel

As a child, I counted down as each day of Pesach passed, waiting for that moment when the ban on chametz would be lifted. As the end of Pesach drew closer, I felt increasingly relieved that I would be able to shed the burden of a more limited diet. And when Pesach ended, it was out the door to acquire chametz as soon as possible.

Eventually, I began to think more deeply and become critical of this attitude. What are we running to when we rush towards chametz? From an aggadic perspective, chametz is not only a halakhic prohibition on Pesach but also represents, symbolically, some of the worst of our character traits.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז עמוד א

ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי: רבון העולמים, גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך, ומי מעכב? שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות; יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם, ונשוב לעשות חוקי .רצונך בלבב שלם

Rabbi Alexandri, after praying [Shemoneh Esrei], said thus: Master of the Worlds, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will. And who prevents us? The yeast in dough and our subjugation to foreign regimes. May it be Your will that You save us from their hands, and that we return to perform the statues of Your will with a complete heart.

Rashi explains that the “yeast in dough” is the yetzer hara, the evil inclination that rises in our hearts, that prevents us from serving G-d with a complete heart. This שאור, yeast, that symbolizes the evil inclination, is the same שאור that we are commanded not to possess or see on the seven/eight days of Pesach (Shemot 13:7, Devarim 16:4).

Likewise, Sefer HaChinukh (Mitzvah 117) writes that the reason why we may not have chametz on Pesach, nor may we sacrifice a mincha that has chametz, is because chametz symbolizes haughtiness, as yeast elevates itself. Additionally, dough that contains yeast takes a while to rise, and when we are engaged in serving G-d, we must be quick to perform the religious actions. Thus, chametz is a negative ingredient.

On top of the fact that chametz contains negative symbolism, in general, halakha teaches us not to see mitzvot as a burden. For example, the Tur (Orach Chayim 93) writes that one should wait a while after finishing prayers, so that it not be seen as a burden from which one is running. Perhaps, then, even if the prohibition of chametz expires at the emergence of three stars at Pesach, maybe we should wait to buy chametz, so that the mitzvah we had just performed not be demonstrably burdensome to us.

Yet, a fascinating practice of the Vilna Gaon provides a different perspective as to how we might treat chametz after Pesach:

מעשה רב הלכות פסח אות קפה

וביו”ט אחרון היה אוכל סעודה שלישית אף על פי שלא היה אוכל שלש סעודות בשאר י”ט מפני חביבת מצות אכילת מצה שזמנו הולך לו ובמוצאי י”ט היה משתדל לטעום חמץ וכן חדש באורתא נגהי תמניסר. והיה נמנע לאכול לאחר פסח מצה שיוצאין בה ידי חובתו בפסח וכ”ז להיכרא לעשיית המצוה שאין עושין אותה להנאה אלא מפני גזירת הבורא יתעלה שמו

On the last day of Pesach, he would eat a third meal even though he would not eat three meals on other yamim tovim because of his affection for the mitzvah of eating matzah, which is shortly departing. And on motzaei yom tov, he would try to taste chametz, and also chadash on the night of the eighteenth [of Nissan]. And after Pesach he would refrain from eating matzah with which one fulfills his obligation, and all of this is to give recognition to the fact that performing the mitzvah is not for pleasure but rather due to the decree of the Creator, blessed be He.

On a peshat level, the practice of the Vilna Gaon reflects an approach to halakha that does not draw out reasons for the commandments, and certainly the reasons do not impact the execution of the halakha itself. We perform every mitzvah out of love, in its proper time, but however good the mitzvah is, it does not transcend its proper time and place.

Yet, upon further reflection, I think the Vilna Gaon’s practice also illuminates the aggadic aspect to the prohibition of chametz. We have eight days in which we aspire to a certain spiritual level, and there is value in that. But perhaps we should not be aspiring to live our daily lives in such an extreme in which we always refrain from chametz. Eight days allows us enough time to reflect and recharge our desire to serve G-d wholeheartedly. Yet, we are human beings. On the verse ואנשי קדש תהיון לי – and you shall be a holy people to me – the Kotzker Rebbe said, “I have enough angels, but I need people, holy people.”

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 64a records a dramatic story in which the Anshei Keneset HaGedolah attempt to destroy the yetzer hara, after it was suspected that it was the yetzer hara that caused the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. And when they fasted and prayed that it be destroyed, a note fell from heaven that said “emet.” They catch a fiery lion which is an embodiment of the yetzer hara, and not only do they destroy. But what transpires is that even an egg for a sick person cannot be found, and they realize that they cannot request half-measures from Heaven, so the best they can do is blind the eye of the lion so that there is no yetzer for relatives.

For all of the problems that transpire due to the yetzer hara, our job as human beings, as אנשי קודש, is to wrestle with it. Embrace the challenge. As we return to chametz, we recognize that in fact, our yetzer hara also can be directed in positive ways to allow us to make contributions to the world. Pesach allowed us time to step back and take a sober accounting of the negative influences impeding our service of G-d. Yet our temporary abstinence should give us the strength to fully grapple with all of the challenges that mark the distinctive human experience, for which we were created to live.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is in his second year at RIETS and his first year at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history.

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