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Good Riddance Day

January 2, 2014 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

A new custom for removing trash from your life echoes the burning of chametz before Passover. The similarity is no accident.

There’s a fairly new tradition in New York for the transition from one year to the next. It’s called Good Riddance Day, and we just witnessed its seventh annual observance.

Tim Tompkins, head of the Times Square Alliance, explained “It’s a great idea for all of those who treasure an opportunity to physically destroy reminders of negative events of the past year and to symbolically move forward to better days ahead.” And sure enough, New Yorkers turned out in droves to Midtown Manhattan just before New Year’s with their own individual and highly unique ways of commemorating a day dedicated to removing the trash from their lives and for expressing their contempt for the most harmful items of the past.

Good riddance to those aspects of our lives we want to discard.

Some used the moment to burn the letters from unfaithful spouses. There were the parents who shredded the-year-old medical diagnosis of their son’s kidney cancer which has now thankfully gone into total remission. Then there were those who brought documents they wanted to destroy, like medical bills, and objects they wanted to smash with a mallet, as a way to vengefully say goodbye to the troubles of the past year. What all of them shared was a cry of good riddance to those aspects of their lives they visibly wanted to discard, a commitment to keeping bad memories from interfering with the future.

Something like this has been part of Jewish tradition for thousands of years.

Jews are doubly blessed when it comes to New Years. We observe one in the fall, on Rosh Hashanah, commemorating the birth of mankind. We have another in the spring, when the calendar marks the month of Nissan, which the Torah refers to as the first month, because of its association with the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. Passover is the holiday that commemorates this beginning, and it is preceded on the morning of the night of the Seder with a symbolic burning that resonates powerfully with the theme of Good Riddance Day.

On Passover Jews are commanded to eat matzah and are forbidden not only to eat leavened bread but to have the smallest crumb in their home or possession as well. Bread is something that needs to be totally renounced. Whatever is left over before Passover begins must be ceremoniously burned and verbally negated. Jews recite: “All leavened bread that is in my possession which I have seen or not seen, may it be nullified and rendered ownerless as the dust of the earth.”

What is this sudden aversion to bread all about? What does the food we normally consider the staff of life suddenly represent that is so reprehensible? Traditional commentators have offered various symbolic suggestions, comparing yeast to the evil inclination and bread that “has risen” to the sin of excessive pride.

Allow me to offer another possible, novel interpretation.

Historians tell us sourdough is the oldest and most original form of leavened bread and the oldest recorded use of sourdough is from the Ancient Egyptian civilizations1. Archaeological evidence confirms that yeast – both as a leavening agent and for brewing ale – was initially used in Egypt. Food historians generally agree that the land of the Nile, biblically known for its enslavement of the Hebrews, must be credited with the remarkable technological achievement that was to play such a crucial role in the progress of civilization.

Egypt’s expertise brought the world a great gift of nourishment and sustenance. Yet its “scientific breakthrough” was not matched by moral progress. The inventors of bread remained barbaric masters of slaves. The very people who discovered the staff of life didn’t hesitate to serve as the agents of death for the Hebrew children they drowned in the Nile.

It was a profound lesson about the disconnect between science and ethics that mankind learned millennia ago – and not much has changed to this day. In our own times, Albert Einstein famously warned us that “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” And he wisely cautioned us that “Our entire much-praised technological progress and civilization generally could be compared to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.”

Martin Luther King put it beautifully when he said, “We have reached a time when we have advanced enough to have guided missiles, yet we still remain primitive enough to have misguided men.” Technology has blessed us with smart phones but left us with stupid people in terms of ethical and honorable values.

Perhaps the burning of chametz is meant to publicize this great dichotomy between mankind’s achievements and its propensity to continue to embrace acts of evil. As the Hebrews were about to be freed from slavery they were to symbolically rid themselves of Egypt’s great technological innovation of bread to demonstrate that scientific progress divorced from a moral code needs condemnation, rather than unqualified praise and acceptance.

A world of nuclear giants is a dangerous place when filled with ethical infants.

Every year on the eve of Passover Jews have a Good Riddance Day. The “villain” isn’t bread but what it came to represent to the Jews in ancient Egypt - a powerful symbol of intellectual progress by their oppressors, devoid of any humanitarian concern for those they oppressed. The pioneering Egyptians ate bread; their slaves, never granted the dignity of human beings created in the divine image, were forced to eat matzah, the bread of affliction.

It is a message that bears repetition more frequently than in the context of the pre-Passover ritual.

Those who came to the New Year’s Eve ceremony in Manhattan who didn’t bring items to destroy were encouraged to write down the things they wished could be eliminated from our future. Entries ranged from pop culture references – “Miley Cyrus’s fame” – to the serious: “cancer,” “war,” “human trafficking,” “poverty.”

All of these surely deserve inclusion. Allow me to add one more: “Technology without values, progress without prudence.” Because a world of nuclear giants is a dangerous place when filled with ethical infants.

1. Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Vol. 1 [Cambridge University Press] 2000 (p 619-620)

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