Featured in local papers on Thursday, April 17, 2008. Copyright 2008 by Yosef Y. Polter

Passover – A deeper look
By Rabbi Yosef Polter

A major element of Passover, perhaps even more important than the ritual Seder itself, is abstention from chametz – any product with possible leavening in it – for the duration of Passover.  This prohibition actually begins mid-morning of Passover eve.  

Abstention from chametz during Passover is a commandment given in the sacred book of Jewish law, the Torah, also called “Torat Chayim,” or Torah of life.  “Torah” itself means lesson or teaching, so “Torat Chayim” translates to “living lessons” or “lessons for life”.  As such, every aspect of Torah has a lesson that is relevant to us today.  This lesson is in addition to the technical observance of a given commandment which still remains first and foremost.  Accordingly, the commandment to refrain from eating chametz for eight and a half days must also have a deeper lesson that can guide us even today in the year 2008. 

Chametz is basically dough that has risen or yeast that causes the dough to rise; on the other hand, matzah is flat.  On a deeper level, chametz represents the inflated ego, while matzah represents humility and self nullification. 

The ego, the self, is the prime cause of most other character flaws and weaknesses.  It is quite evident that negative character traits such as greed, envy, anger, lust, depression, and laziness, as well as breakup of the family and other social ills, stem in most cases from a lack of selflessness and humility.  When our “self” is disproportionately felt we will do anything to accommodate and gratify that self, including inappropriate behaviors.  Even depression, though it may not seem so, is a result of an inflated ego, but it is an inward reaction rather than an outward reaction like anger.  If things aren’t going our way, some will get angry, others will become depressed.

The prohibition in Torah against eating chametz is a very serious one.  This conveys the vital message that one must flee from chametz and what it represents.  Thus during Passover, the “festival of liberation”, we have the opportunity to contemplate the deeper dimension of this commandment: to liberate ourselves somewhat from our own ego, and to become more selfless and humble.  Passover tells us: You have the potential to unshackle yourself from the grip of your ego.

Indeed, the very observance of this prohibition in itself provides a sort of spiritual energy to help us tone down the “self,” the “me,” the “I need it now,” the “why aren’t things going my way.”  Certainly, more work is needed – beyond the physical abstention from eating chametz – but during this holiday we can harness added energies by observing this commandment.

This also explains on a deeper level the significance of the formal, ritual search for chametz that we conduct prior to Passover.  Since it is not easy for one to recognize his or her own ego, much less admit to its presence, we are told to search for it and to find it.  Only after we recognize and accept its existence within us can we set out on the eight-and-a-half day journey of self-improvement, working to minimize the importance of the self.

May we use this Passover opportunity to effect positive change in ourselves, thereby reaping the benefits of greater happiness, more peace of mind, better relationships, and more self control, and may we, in turn, receive G‑d’s blessing for an improved life materially and spiritually. 

Best wishes for a Kosher and Happy Passover and spring season.

Rabbi Polter is the director of the Acton-concord Chabad Center which has been serving area towns since 2000.  The center is located at 148 Great Road in Acton. For more information about the center’s many programs and services, call (978) 929-2513 or visit www.ActonConcordChabad.org