Hot Air

May 9, 2009

3 min read


Passover cleaning can liberate us from our most dangerous enemy -- our fragile egos.

My recollections of the Seders of my childhood include the Maxwell House Haggadah, the Manischevitz wine, and the passionate desire to pass on something of who we are without quite knowing who we are. We ate matzah and drank wine so thick that it probably could have stood vertically on its own sugar content.

Most of all, I remember a sense that something of great import and significance was taking place, but we were not sure what it was. Only a few years later, when I began attending Jewish day school, did I realize that the Seder is the dramatic culmination of process which should have begun weeks before. It was like being dropped off at Buckingham Palace in our soiled school clothes, in the middle of a shopping trip for sneakers, and being handed an invitation for an audience with the Queen to take place ten minutes hence.

Like all important occasions, the Seder requires preparation-internal as well as external. The preparation for Passover is bedikat chometz: thoroughly checking the house to be sure that there are no leavened foods or crumbs. Today I begin cleaning a month before the festival. The entire house gets a work over, every drawer, closet, and corner. To the uninitiated, it looks like I'm an under-medicated obsessive-compulsive lunatic caught up in a spring cleaning ritual designed by the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Inside, however, I feel a growing exhilaration, because my physical cleaning is nothing less than an attack on my ego, which is the main impediment in my relationship with God.

How can a vigorous pursuit of crumbs purge the ego? The answer requires a spiritual perspective on the Exodus. The enslavement and liberation of our ancestors is the spiritual prototype of all exiles and redemptions, not only of the Jewish people collectively, but also of each individual.

Daily, we are all engaged in the struggle for redemption. We all have conflicts within us. We do battle with pettiness, negativity, desire, and selfishness that hold us back from becoming who we can be. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzraim, the root of which means "narrow." Whatever narrows us, that is, makes us punier spiritually and emotionally, is our personal Mitzraim.

When we ask ourselves why we are not liberated, we often point to external limitations. We wish our parents loved us unconditionally, that our education had provided us with the tools for facing real life, that our employers, spouses, and friends opened gates rather than closed them.

However, when we examine our inner reality more honestly, we recognize that external factors cannot bear the blame for our unrealized potential. We all know people who have expanded their inner worlds against enormous odds. The true oppressor which chokes our potential for growth is the ego. Passover cleaning is an antidote to the oppression of ego.

In order for bread to rise, leavening must take place, catalyzed by the yeast. As oxidization occurs, air pockets develop. Nothing is added to the dough, but it gets bigger, swelled by the hot air.

The force of ego is compared to the yeast in the dough. Ego persuades us that things and incidents of little real value are hugely significant. A party we were not invited to, a joke at our expense, the latest DVD player that our friend has but we cannot afford-all loom large in our consciousness.

The reason that we are so easily offended is that our own sense of adequacy is as insubstantial as the hot air in the bread. We seek to fill our empty spaces with objects, titles, and transitory self-images of youth and trimness. Such ephemeral substance is easily deflated as the vicissitudes of life impinge on our egos, like the cakes baking in the oven when our mothers would warn us: "Don't jump in the kitchen." We posture and purchase to satisfy the hunger of our insatiable egos. We enslave ourselves.

On Passover we eat matzah, which is called, "the bread of freedom." Matzah consists of flour and water which has not been allowed to leaven. This symbolizes the real substance and spirit that make us human: the eternal, invulnerable soul that has not been corrupted by ego. This is our true self-definition.

Preparatory to Passover, how do we get rid of our chometz, our inflated self-definition? Rather than achieving this goal though introspection alone (which often makes us even more self-absorbed), we also attack the physical manifestations of chometz.

Self-transformation in Judaism is based on the principle that human beings are changed from the outside in. What we do, not what we think, creates who we are. Thus, we could be filled with thoughts, aspirations, and intentions to be generous, but only when we put the money into the beggar's hand do we actually start to become a generous person. That is why most of the commandments of the Torah are physical. The hands program the mind and heart more effectively than the converse.

Our pre-Passover elimination of chometz effects our inner space far more permanently than it does our outer space. Passover can take us far beyond matzah, wine, and family warmth. It can liberate us from our most subversive enemy--our fragile ego.

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