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First Days of Pesah – 5779

April 17, 2019

Hametz of the Soul: The Yeast Within

A D’var Torah for the first days of Pesah
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

“And what prevents us from performing Your will? It is the yeast in the dough.” Rabbi Alexandri

The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), one of our greatest rabbis, provided an important answer to a question which each of us may ask from time to time.

“Why are we here?”

Indeed, we navigate our lives, apply our God-given talents, interact with others, but ultimately what is the purpose of it all?

The Vilna Gaon considered this question, and suggested that, simply stated, the purpose of life is to turn ourselves into something better.

In his commentary on the Book of Proverbs – the Vilna Gaon expanded on verse 4:13 which reads “hold fast to discipline; do not let it go; Keep it. It is your life.”

And how did he interpret the phrase “it is your life?” The Vilna Gaon noted: “For it is your life – because a person lives in order to break whatever trait he hasn’t broken up to now, therefore he needs to perpetually strengthen himself, because if he doesn’t – why is he alive?”

If only it were that easy.

Seven months ago, during the High Holidays, we committed ourselves to a self-improvement plan. Perhaps we pledged to be more patient, or to spend more time with family, or to be less stubborn. And here we are at the dawn of Passover, with many of those promises unfulfilled.

As we prepare to recall our liberation from Egypt, we devote ourselves to various physical acts. We clean. We cook. We re-organize.

This is part of the Biblical commitment to rid our homes of hametz – leaven – as we recall how our ancestors, during the Exodus, did not have enough time to let their dough rise.

But is that all? Is there another kind of hametz?

The great Sage, Rabbi Alexandri is quoted in the Talmud, as saying, “it is our will to perform Your will.” (Berakhot 17a).

He continues: “And what prevents us from performing Your will? It is the yeast in the dough.”

What is Rabbi Alexandri talking about? Rabbi Yehudah Prero offered this spiritual explanation of what hametz truly is.

He noted that while Rabbi Alexandri is referring to the Yetzer HaRa – the evil inclination within each of us — in addition, “chametz represents all of our character flaws such as haughtiness, jealousy, unbridled passion and lust. Just as we need to remove every speck of chametz from our household, so too we need to remove every speck of spiritual chametz from our beings.”

Day by day, we tend to occupy ourselves with so many non-productive activities, and this naturally compounds during the winter months.

By its very nature, winter moves us indoors. We are prone to hibernate. Perhaps we have neglected our bodies. Perhaps we have become spiritually flat, or developed various negative habits.

Perhaps, like Pharaoh, we have hardened our hearts.

But just in time, at the first sign of spring, we are encouraged to liberate our souls. During Passover, we speak of freedom. We greet the world with optimism. We can more easily step outside and embrace God’s physical creation.

And possibly, during these physical pursuits, we can begin to ask ourselves, “What yeast have we acquired during the winter months?”

Have our egos become inflated? Have our souls become bloated? What leaven have we acquired, as we’ve internalized broken promises, failed relationships or personal disappointments?

But there is good news as we approach Passover. We possess the capacity to embrace newness and optimism. It is the Jewish way.

But the Seder table, we rekindle friendships and reinforce family ties. We eat, sing, and read sacred stories. We remember those who came before us, and embrace family and communal rituals.

And within this we create hope.

As we enter the final days before Passover, let us commit to ridding ourselves of our stubbornness, our biases and our spiritual bloat.

In particular, during these exceptionally fractured times, let us commit to steer clear of those topics which divide, and embrace those which unite.

Is it time for a new approach? Is it time to reboot our relationships? Is it time – as we reflect upon the simplicity of matzah — to flatten our souls?

Indeed, if we are prone to ask ourselves, how can we make ourselves into something better, let us also consider what hametz we need to get rid of in order to lessen our load.

What is the bloat which enslaves us? What burdens are we self-imposing? What is our yeast in the dough? It’s time to get back to basics and make space for what really matters.

It’s time to flatten our souls, and embrace those simple things which truly set us free.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.