My first meaningful Jewish experience at seventeen was a Passover Seder. At the time, I was living with an addict. He would freebase heroin, ‘chasing the dragon’, as it was known, pretty much every day, and I regularly would come home from High School and find him sitting on our couch with eyes wide open, only the whites visible. Sadly, though almost inevitably, he eventually died of an overdose.
Judaism meant less than nothing to me, but somehow, I ended up at a rabbi’s Seder night. He started talking about the freedom from Egypt as a metaphor for freedom from ourselves; the freedom to make the choices we wish to make, unrestricted by our own habitual desires and beliefs; freedom from addiction.
I was utterly dumbfounded that a book written two thousand years ago could have such insight into my roommate’s relationship with heroin. It succinctly, and completely accurately, defined his way of life and talked about an obvious route to change. It opened my eyes to a Judaism that was not about dogma and ritual, but wisdom and meaning.
Every commandment on Passover has within it a metaphor for this personal freedom and is a guide to achieving it.
I want to focus on the commandment to rid ourselves of ‘chametz’, leaven, on Passover. It is a small part of a much bigger picture. And yet, as with everything in Judaism, you will see that even a little goes a very long way.
Whilst people often think that the difference between leaven and matzah is yeast, that is not strictly true. The technical difference is that matzah is grain and water that has not been allowed to rise and leaven is grain and water that has.
So, leaven and matzah have exactly the same ingredients. Only leaven has had time (eighteen minutes to be precise) to rise and matzah has not. Leaven, in effect, is matzah that has been puffed up by air. And yet, leaven – in particular bread – is so much more attractive and enticing than matzah. Bread is simply matzah that looks and tastes better.
Before Passover, we Jews spend time searching our homes for this leaven. The evening before Passover, we get it all out into the open and then the next day we burn it. And for seven days we do not eat or even possess leaven.
In Jewish belief, leaven represents personal slavery and matzah represents personal freedom. We become enslaved to life’s luxuries not its necessities. I have yet to meet someone addicted to eating broccoli or drinking water, addicted to spending time with their children. As the Beatles said, ‘the best things in life are free’, ‘but you can save them for the birds and bees’. We become addicted to the leaven, those things which look good, appeal to our desires, urge us to engage in them – but ultimately offer nothing more (and often much less) than the ‘best things in life’. I have met no one addicted to broccoli but plenty of people addicted to chocolate. Chocolate provides less (a lot less) nutrition than broccoli – and yet we desire them in inverse proportion to their value.
A few days before Passover, not only do we search our homes for leaven, we search our hearts for ‘leaven’ as well. We look inside of ourselves to see where we are enslaved.
Let me give a very relevant example – likely for every one of us. Smartphones. I wake up in the morning and my beloved is next to my bed; of course, it is my alarm after all. My first thought is not how can I thank God for the gift of life today, rather let’s see the life changing messages on Whatsapp – no, not ‘let’s see’, rather ‘I need to see, I MUST see’. The News might be next. What has happened overnight? My world has surely changed in cataclysmic ways. I absolutely, positively HAVE to know……..
So, without any possible option otherwise, I check Whatsapp and the news, as well as my emails; one person has Whatsapped me a very unfunny meme and, I have emails from Amazon, Google and LinkedIn and, lo and behold, the News tells me that the world is exactly the way I left it the previous evening. Pretty much the same as a decade ago, actually. The addiction offered me something so exciting and glamorous – and delivered only disappointment.
Pesach is a ‘time’ of freedom. A time when freedom is in the air. A time not to think about freedom but to embrace freedom and, indeed, be free.
So, on the eve of Passover, we have searched our homes for leaven and have it all on the table. We have journeyed inside and found our areas of spiritual enslavement. And now we burn it all.
For me, burning my leaven means making a decision that for seven days I am not interested slavery. For seven days I am going to look in a different direction. For seven days, I am going to be free of this way of life that enslaves me. On other days of the year it would be madness to think this possible. To make a decision to change habits of a lifetime and for the decision to last forever. Judaism believes, however, that the spiritual season of Passover is propitious for such overnight changes in direction.
Try suddenly stopping smoking for seven days, with an eye on it lasting forever, at another time of year. Or being completely disinterested in your desire for sugar. Or try to decide you are not going to follow the thoughts of anger when they come. Will it happen? The coming week of Passover, there is a guarantee that it will. Our willpower is magnified and we can be different and then live with those changes as long as we decide to do so. If we genuinely burn our leaven, it will be gone.
This Passover, my smartphone is going in my drawer for seven days. And I can’t tell you how exciting that sounds to me! Wow – seven days of freedom from my taskmaster; a daunting thought, but a breath of fresh air.
Let me share a few more of my slaveries (though many others are not for public disclosure!) I won’t be watching soccer for seven days either. I won’t be going to bed later than twelve o’ clock (other than on the Seder Nights), I won’t be playing chess on my computer, nor eating sugar. My diet starts this Passover – and really it does. Because there is no time to start a diet like Passover. Forget that we Orthodox Jews have food all around us for seven days. We have freedom all inside of us for those seven days. Which is a more powerful force? As long as we choose, the freedom of Passover is a gift to wield as we see fit. It is the most glorious time of year for personal change.
So, spend some time during the next few days making a list of your slaveries, your addictions. I suggest you write them all down (password protected!) and then pick two or three to break free from on Pesach. I usually print a piece of paper with them on and burn that paper with my leaven. On the eve of Passover, make your decision. You are going to be free for the next seven days. And sit back and watch Passover work its beautiful magic.
If you are looking for and destroying your leaven this Passover, don’t just do that. And if you are not destroying your leaven, then at least do this. Take advantage of what is on offer. Use it and change. As Martin Luther King famously quoted, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”