How Do I Rise? On Being Human and Not Being Chameitz

Much has been written about the symbolic meaning of the matzah. One popular mode of interpretation is to ask how we, as human beings, can be unleavened. What is the difference between having our (inner) dough rise — fermented by some kind of invasive yeast — versus having it remain simple and pure?
My friend and colleague Rabbi Aaron Alexander (and soon-to-be-rabbi Ronit Tsadok) published a lovely entry on the Huffington Post about certain aspects of the Pesach experience we would do well to focus on for our own spiritual elevation. One area of focus was on this idea of ridding ourselves of our personal chameitz, the “hubris and unhealthy ego” that stands (rises?!) in contrast to the “humility and self awareness” that matzah represents.

One response from a well-respected teacher of Torah was to question the idea of matzah representing self-awareness. He wondered if part of humility was about turning our attention towards God, essentially fulfilling the injunction to “know before whom you stand.” Below was my response to that challenge, which also serves as a general elaboration on this entire theme.

Much of this interpretation, by the way, is expressed quite powerfully in a teaching by the Chasidic master, the Sefat Emet:

On every Pesah a Jew becomes like a new person, exactly like the newborn child that each of us was as we came forth from Egypt. More precisely, the internal essence implanted by God within our hearts is renewed, again. That essence is called lehem ‘oni (poor people’s bread), because it is totally without expansion. By definition, matzah is just the dough itself, not having changed through fermentation. Every Jew has this inner essence, a gift from and of God. Our task is really to expand that essence, to draw all our deeds to follow it. This is our job throughout the year, for better or worse. But this holiday of matzot is the time when the inner essence itself is renewed, purified from any defilement. Therefore, it has to be guarded from any “fermenting” or change on this holiday.

If our “rising” does not occur within the context of knowing before whom we stand, then it is chametzadik rising. If it is not before — in deference to and reverence for — the One, and all that the One commands and “stands for,” then it is vain and “in vain.” It is a misguided rising, corrupted — fermented — by the yeast of ego, what the Rabbis call yetzer ha’ra but which isn’t “bad” at all if applied properly and in moderation with a mindfulness of the One before whom that rising occurs: it facilitates marriages, children, the building of homes, etc. That’s why the symbolic application of this phenomenon to bread can’t be in place all year: We need that process that we call “culturing” — that occurs in the social realm parallel to its biological manifestation in the raw ingredients of flour and water. The essential chumra (stricture) of Pesach — the fence we build around the biological chameitz — trains us to be more acutely aware of the parallel chameitz that manifests in our social existence, that distorts the simpler admixture of our embodied existence in relationship to the One, turning us away from the One and the unadulterated awareness of rising before the One.

Perhaps we can think of God as the water and us as the flour. The free will and immense capacity for knowledge that God gives us usually allows for the flourishing of the yeast, those unique aspects of human culture that enable us to “rise above” the rest of Creation as representatives of Divinity, standing upright in our quest of “heaven.” But we know too well the dangers of that rising. In fall, just as inclement weather would drive us into our warm, perhaps luxurious homes, Sukkot forces us to step out of our comfortable palaces (built by that same human “yeast” we’re talking about) and “return” to a simpler, more harmonious relationship with nature — God’s Creation that we inhabit — that virtually none of us would argue for embracing fully year-round.

In spring, the natural world is bursting out of its hiding places of hibernation and inner growth — engaged in its own harmonious rising that the Psalms tell us are living odes to the Creator. But Pesach reminds us not to let our own natural, human, gifts lead to an excessive, distracted bursting forth. Rather, the holiday forces us towards a more harmonious engagement with Eternity — symbolized by the water that moistens us, the flour. That “harmonious engagement” is solidified through the baking that preserves the simplicity of the mixture, locking us in more intimately with the transformative water and simultaneously keeping us free from the more complicated and complicating transformations that the yeast facilitates.

Chag sameach!

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