Idealism, Chametz, and Freedom

May 9, 2009

6 min read


Trying to make the world a better place is a deep drive within every human being. But somewhere along the way, many give up and trade in that value for more creature comforts.

One day I walked into the high school classroom where I teach and was nearly tackled by a wide-eyed teenager supercharged with excitement. She could barely contain herself: "Rabbi Apisdorf, Rabbi Apisdorf," she screeched, pleaded, and politely demanded, "I have to show you something!" Before I could even blink -- much less respond -- a newsletter from Amnesty International had been thrust to within an inch of my eyeglasses.


April is a bright, energetic girl who is out to do no less than change the world. She is an adolescent mix of Mother Teresa and a rock-n-roll icon gyrating to benefit the latest victims of flooding in Bangladesh. And she means it.

A few weeks after my encounter with April's membership in Amnesty International, I was duly informed that she was now a card-carrying member of Green Peace. Before long she would be directing the school's Thanksgiving food drive, educating all who would listen about the plight of third-world babies, championing the cause of America's homeless, praying for an endangered species of rhinoceros, and graciously soliciting my sponsorship of bowling for AIDS. At 10 cents a pin, I had no choice.

As time passed, her infectious zeal began to stir some long dormant feelings -- memories of what it felt like to believe that the world truly could, in fact would, be a better place one day. As the school year drew to a close, I was almost convinced that once we unleashed April and her like-minded comrades on the world, by September we would surely return to a future in which universal peace and harmony were close at hand.


What about you? Do you remember what it was like to be idealistic? Do you recall how palpable and vigorous your convictions were? How doubtless your belief that if people would just sit down and talk with one another, reason with one another -- love one another -- that they would learn to transcend every artificially imposed barrier and find solutions to humankind's most daunting problems -- war and starvation, pollution and oppression, and all the other plagues of mankind.

Now ask yourself this: Was that really you? Or was that just a naive and unseasoned version of your present grown-up self? Was there anything to that idealism, or was it just the immature folly and patently unrealistic dream stuff of youth?

Have you ever felt more free than when you were attuned to that part of you which said, "Somehow, someway, I know we can change this world." Deep down we all know that those rumblings, those dreams, that enthusiastically fresh idealism, stemmed from a very real part of who we are. Because deep within our souls, we are all idealists.

When pondering the creation of Adam, the Talmud asks the question: "Why was the first human created alone?" To which it replies, "So that each person should say: The world was created just for me."

Far from justifying any and every abuse ("Hey, if it was created for me I can do whatever I want with it!"), this supremely Jewish idea says: It is your world and you are responsible for it. There is a voice, a subtle yet persistent voice, which tells us all that we are here for a reason. It tells us that we can, and must, make a difference.


A funny thing happens on the way to Utopia. We grow up. We mature and learn that there is a real world out there; that you've got to be realistic, practical, and pragmatic about life. That little has changed over the millennia and that it's time you assumed some adult responsibilities. That the best you can hope for is to have a secure career, raise a nice family, perhaps make a contribution to your community, and then join your friends at the club on Sunday.

You see, as we abandon our dreams, we abandon ourselves. In the process we consign our freedom to the trust of societal norms and thus we become enslaved. Slowly, without even noticing, we give up. We shelve our idealism and with it the hope of an empowered life of self-leadership. A life lived to its fullest.

This is not to suggest a rejection of everything that the present "establishment" stands for. Rather, it is a plea for integration. For finding a way to reinstate confidence in our human potential -- indeed, in the framework of the real world. Because when we surrender our souls to the comforts of convention, small cracks begin to appear in our hearts' resolve. With time, these cracks become gaping fissures of emptiness. An emptiness which begs to be filled.

And this filler has a name. We call it chametz. Chametz is a great generic monster which grafts itself onto our being, insinuates itself into our consciousness, and becomes the focus of our thoughts, desires, and life's activities. When we give up on idealism for the sake of monetary gain, we acquire chametz. When we squelch our search for achievements of enduring value and opt for the vicarious pleasure of watching others pursue victory, we acquire chametz. Whenever we settle for less and lose sight of what really matters, this too is chametz.

Matzah isn't chametz. In essence, bread comes from the same simple mixture of flour and water which matzah comes from. Only bread contains extra additives for taste and appearance, and is also afforded time to rise. Time to expand to the point where its potential to be matzah has become totally lost.

And this is what cleaning for Passover is all about.

As Passover approaches, we rid our homes of the dough that became bread -- in favor of the dough that becomes matzah. But beyond seeking out the crumbs in our homes, we are told to take a searing look within ourselves. To see if we can't root out those insidious additives which have filled the cracks in our souls, and commandeered the passion of our lives. When we divest ourselves of this presence -- if only for a week -- then what we rediscover our basic selves. Our optimism, our idealism and our freedom.

(From the "Passover Survival Kit Haggadah" --

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