“You shall not eat anything leavened for seven days…”
Very soon, we will begin the ritual search for hametz, leavened bread, that takes place the night before the Seder. My Zeide, of blessed memory, loved to find difficult places to hide ten pieces of bread wrapped in foil all around his house, and we walked around with candles and hot wax dripping on our hands trying to find them. I am now the hider, but my memory often fails me so I have to write down where I hide them. The next day, we burn the hametz we find and recite an ancient “cleansing” formula: “All hametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.” We may not be able to extricate all our hametz, but we affirm that our intent was to do just that.
Mystical writers often regarded hametz as a visual symbol of arrogance. Leavened bread is made with yeast, a chemical agent that causes dough to rise, puffing up that which would ordinarily remain flat. Since arrogance is at the root of so much wrongdoing, many equate hametz with the yetzer ha-ra, the drive to do evil and behave in a self-centered, self-absorbed way, rather than with the humility of matza, our beloved flat bread.
The Babylonian tractate of Sukka [52a-b] offers us much insight into the nature of the yetzer ha-ra that, when processed, helps us understand Passover in a different way. I have taken a few excerpts from these Talmud pages to help us think about that which drives us to betray our best selves on occasion.
“Rabbi Ashi said: Initially, the evil inclination is like a strand of a spider’s web and ultimately it is like the thick ropes of a wagon.” What starts off as a small temptation that remains unchecked quickly becomes an immense seduction.
“The evil inclination has seven names: evil, uncircumcised, impure, an enemy, a stumbling block, a stone, a hidden one.” Our drive for wrongdoing comes in many forms and not in one-size-fits-all. It is called the hidden one because, according to the Talmud, “It is always hidden in the heart of man.” Ironically, the word for hidden used her is tzafun, another word we use at the Seder, referring to the Afikoman, the matza that we hide and then have as the last taste in our mouths when we end the meal at our Seder.
“The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught, ‘If this scoundrel [the evil inclination] accosts you, drag it into the study hall.’” If you feel overcome by the desire to do wrong, help your self-control by going to a sacred place and engaging in an elevating activity that can make you realize that the wrong you were thinking of doing will compromise the integrity and the life you really want.
“Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘The evil inclination incites a person to sin in this world and then testifies against him in the next world’” We want the legacy that we leave the world to be free of scandal and gossip. We can’t control our reputations, but we can control ourselves.
“Rava said: ‘Initially the evil inclination is like a traveler coming from afar. It is called a guest...Ultimately, it becomes the homeowner.’” Through complex word plays, Rava tells us something very profound about the evil inclination. When it first enters our minds, it is like a stranger. We don’t recognize it. It is like a traveler about to walk away. But when we invite it in, it soon becomes the owner of our house, if we let it, taking over the way we think and act.
“Rabbi Simon ben Lakish said: ‘A person’s evil inclination overcomes him each day and seeks to kill him, as it is stated, ‘The wicked watches the righteous and seeks to kill him’ (Psalms 37:32). And if not for the Holy One, Blessed be He, who assists him with the good inclination, he would not overcome it...” The struggle to overcome unwanted cravings and desires is with us always. This spirit of wrong-doing does not characterize who we are as much as offer us a daily challenge. It is no wonder that a lot of mussar writers, those who contemplated character development, make the desire for good and the desire for evil into soldiers constantly waging war within us.
The verse that we began with from Deuteronomy tells us that it is not enough to eat matza. We must refrain from leaven, hametz, for seven days. Not one day. One day is not enough to rid us of excessive self-love and self-absorption. Understood mystically, we might regard Passover as a personal humility retreat, a chance to break away from our overly sensitive egos and our puffed-up sense of self to tell a majestic story that demands self-sacrifice and humility. We don’t only throw away our hametz, we burn it. We know just how divisive the ego is so we give ourselves a better chance to fight our daily struggles when we try to eradicate the obstacles completely.
Let’s use this Passover as the humility retreat it is meant to be because when we are too full of ourselves, it is hard to make room for others, for community and for God.