Searching for chameitz and freeing ourselves

  • RabbiGreg (2)
If you walk up the aisles of your local Pick n Pay or Woolies this week, it’s hard to miss the boxes of matza in different sizes (and prices) reminding us that we are just a few days away from Pesach.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | Mar 29, 2018

Unless you are a real “matzochist” and eat it all year round, your taste buds are getting you ready for that first bite of matza on Friday night.

Actually, if you consider the ratio of matza consumed to chameitz – any leavened bread – that we are instructed not to consume for the week of Pesach, it’s a much bigger investment of time and energy in the not-eating than the eating.

Many families will spend weeks leading up to Pesach deep-cleaning their kitchens to remove any last crumb of bread. This comes to a climax the night before Pesach, when we do a symbolic “search” of the house for chameitz.

The idea is to recognise that although we have done whatever we can to remove it, there is no perfection in this life and there still might be some chameitz that we didn’t manage to find. That’s a powerful life lesson about not beating ourselves up for not being perfect. In fact, perfection might not even be desirable – it might be that the best thing we can do is to fail.

The psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott coined the phrase “the good enough mother” when he observed how babies actually thrived best when their parents failed in small, manageable ways to solve their problems. Parents who worked themselves to exhaustion to do everything for little Joshie, he reasoned, were actually not doing him any favours. The best thing they could do was to pull back and encourage Joshie to learn it for himself.

Anyone who has an older child will have experienced the time that whatever we try to do is not “good enough” for him or her. Winnicott said this was an important stage in a child’s development.  They need to learn how to exist in a world that will not do everything for them, and they need resilience, patience and strength to face tasks without their parents doing it for them.

So, if we reminded ourselves before Pesach that it’s actually good not to be perfect and to stop beating ourselves up, then Dayenu, that would probably be enough. But it gets even better.

The kabbalists who studied with Rabbi Isaac Luria in Tzfat would hide 10 pieces of bread and search for them with a candle the night before Pesach. Some contemporary Jewish families have extended this custom to include not just physical bits of bread but also spiritual “chameitz” that they are looking to be free of at Pesach. That means along with the last bits of bagel, you might want to stop smoking, coffee bingeing, belittling yourself or your spouse, or any other habit or thing that is holding you and your family back from feeling “free”.

So, here is a practice to follow the night before Pesach (this year, Erev Pesach is on Friday, March 30, so bedikat chameitz is the evening of Thursday, March 29): Take a piece of paper and write the numbers 1 to 10 down the side. Then list the 10 things that you would like to be rid of in your life this Pesach (or the 10 things that your family want to work on). Then tear them into strips, and you will hunt for them with the more physical chameitz.

Pesach is called zman cheruteinu – the time of our freedom. The idea here is to use the ritual of searching for chameitz as a catalyst for really freeing us from the slaveries that we impose on ourselves.

Much of the stress in our lives does not originate outside of our own brain. In fact, we are usually our harshest critics, and experts at procrastination.  Pesach is a time to walk out of Egypt, the narrowest places in our lives, and to set our GPS for the Promised Land.

Here’s how it works:

1. You will need a candle, a feather, a wooden spoon and a paper bag. [The search is done by candlelight, hence the candle. The feather allows you to sweep any chameitz crumbs into the spoon, which is then poured into the paper bag. The paper bag is paper, so you can burn it in the morning].

2. Take 10 pieces of bread, wrap them in paper so that no crumbs should escape, and disperse them around the house. At the same time, put the 10 bits of paper, scrunched up, around the house too.  TIP: Write down on another piece of paper where you placed the bread/paper, because if you don’t end up finding all 10 pieces, you have to search again and again until you find every one.

3. After sunset light the candle, hold it together with the feather and paper bag, and recite the following blessing:“Baruch atta Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha’olam asher kid-sha-nu b’mitz-vo-sav v’tzi-vanu al bee-ur chameitz. [Blessed are you, Eternal our G-d, Ruler of time and space, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us to remove the chameitz.]”

4. Search for chameitz in all the rooms of your house. Any chameitz (and the 10 pieces of paper) which you find that you spread around, should be placed in the paper bag.

5. Immediately after the search say:“All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, which I have neither seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”

6. The next morning, take the bag out to the braai and burn the lot!  Free, free at last!

This tried-and-tested ritual takes on new and deeper meaning when we use it as a tool for our own personal freedom. May this Pesach be a time of redemption for us, our families and communities as we recognise the blessing of failing, of not being perfect but just good enough, and as we work to emerge from the parted seas of freedom stronger, lighter and freer than we were when we entered them.

Chag sameach.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is part of the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation


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