Parashat Sh’mini – Goodbye matzoh, hello chametz!

Parashat Sh’mini – Goodbye matzoh, hello chametz!

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, and serves as one of the national co-chairs of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign to reduce gun violence.


The journey into the unknown has begun. The lambs have been slaughtered; the Holy One of Blessing has broken us out of bondage with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; we have marked our doors with blood; we have retold the tale of our redemption to show that we are ready to be free. The last of the brisket has been eaten and the seder plate is ready to be returned to the mothballs. Having endured seven days of matzoh, we are relieved to be able to enjoy pizza and beer (or your chametz of choice) once again.

But why all the fuss about bread and cookies, as Rabbi Terry Bookman, co-founder of Eitzah/The Center for Congregational Leadership, asks. Why did we begin this process a full month before Pesach? Why did it seem so hard to avoid chametz for the seven long days of the festival? Unlike the long list of clearly treyf foods listed in this week’s parasha, chametz is permissible food – forbidden only during Pesach.

I think that the hard truth about chametz is we often really don’t want to get rid of it.

Have you heard of the TV show “Clean Sweep”? Couples on the show bring everything out of their overcrowded houses onto the lawn to divide into three piles – keep, sell, donate. Then a professional organizer comes and makes them cut their keep pile by half or so, and the couples typically agonize and even fight over some incredibly random items. The husband’s kindergarten report card; the second place trophy from the wife’s Little League softball team; the lava lamp from his bachelor pad; her prom dress; their college beer mug collection…. These items all had meaning at some point. They were all important, central parts of their lives at one time. And it’s hard for them to let go of those objects, no matter that their home is so overstuffed with the past that there’s barely room for present or future. Without being pressed to do otherwise, we can be sure that these couples will pass these tchotchkes down to their children, to clutter their homes. The organizer forces them to face that reality, and helps them gently grieve for their losses, even as she or he helps them move the dusty too-small bowling ball and the pennant from the expansion team that went bust out of the “keep” pile. The sell and donate piles on “Clean Sweep” remind me a lot of the chametz we missed so much on Passover.

Chametz is a symbol of slavery, that which ties us down to our own personal Egypts. It represents our addictions and weaknesses, our fears and our doubts. It is what makes us want to return to those Egypts the moment the going gets rough. It is the goodies with which we indulge ourselves. It is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past that we have a hard time letting go of.

It is one thing to distance oneself from that which is clearly demarcated for us as “right or wrong,” “fitting or improper,” or “acceptable or outside the lines.” So Sh’mini teaches: It is acceptable to eat beef and tuna and crickets; but the rock badger, the eagle and the gecko are out. When the rules and regulations are clearly laid out for all to see, we still have a choice – blessing or curse – but at least the options seem transparent. It’s good and comforting to have situations where all can plainly recognize right from wrong, and to live with that awareness. Murder is always wrong. Giving tzedakah is always right. We need these absolutes in our lives.

It is quite another thing to take control of that which is or has been normatively a part of our lives, like chametz, and voluntarily set it aside, either temporarily or permanently. The real difference between matzoh and chametz (besides texture and taste) is that chametz rises on its own, while matzoh is proof that no spontaneous activity has taken place. According to the Shulchan Aruch, even “matzoh dough can become chametz if the process of rising is permitted to begin” (Orach Chaim 45a). Preventing the transformation to chametz from taking place requires a great deal of watchfulness, of focused energy, of concentrated effort.

In many ways, our lives are more often filled with the ambiguity of Passover than they are the clarity of Sh’mini. That, to me, is what makes Pesach harder than Parashat Sh’mini in some ways. And it is what makes the gray areas of our everyday lives, as individuals, as professionals, and as organizations, so challenging and complicated and messy. A slip here or there, a moment of carelessness, an assumption that does not materialize, and we are stuck with something that we did not intend.

That is the challenge of chametz – the challenge to take control of our lives: To make a list of where the chametz exists, and then to get rid of everything on the list. We’ve done it before, in every generation. We did it again this Passover. Once again we recognized that “halailah hazeh, kulo matzoh.” Having realized that we actually can survive a whole week on matzoh, let us be cautious and perhaps a bit more thoughtful as we reintroduce all of the leavening to our lives. Now that we have slung our packs on our backs, headed in earnest toward the promised land, let us not be weighed down by too much chametz – the excesses of our lives that blind us from what is important and stand in the way of spiritual and physical health.

Oh, but I do love my lava lamp….