What Do We Do With Our Spiritual Chometz?

פסחיס ב: רבי יהודה אומר אין בעור חמץ אלה שרפה וחכמים אומרים אף מפרר וגורה לרוח או מטיל לים.

Mishna Pesachim 2: R’ Yehuda says: Chometz must be destroyed through fire. The Sages say: One can crumble it and release it to the wind or in water.

On the holiday of Pesach (Passover) Jews are forbidden to eat chometz (leaven) or to even possess it. We are approaching Pesah and it is time to contemplate the removal of our chometz, both literal and metaphorical. R’ Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l comments that just as even a little external chometz must be removed from your possession, so even a little spiritual chometz must be given attention. Chometz, or leaven, is a concern for both Jews and Christians. Resonant with Rabbi Carlebach, Paul warns in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump (of dough).”

Such spiritual chometz is the yezer hara (evil inclination- here foolish, destructive desires). Chazal, our sages, call the yezer hara “the chometz in the dough” (T. Bavli; Berakhot 17a). Paul associates chometz with “malice and evil” contrasting it with the “matzah of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthinans 5:8). Jesus seemed to associate chometz with malevolent spiritual pride, as in Mark 8:15 and Matthew 16:6, “Beware of the chometz of the Phrisees and Sadducees”. Chometz here is probably again, however, a watchword for the yetzer hara more generally.

As R’ Carlebach points out (Carlebach Haggadah) even small things can cause great damage- harsh words to our spouse or children, laziness in failing to honour our parents, giving charity to someone on the street without a smile; a habit of being impatient, aversive, or judgemental; apathy or a tendency to be self-deprecating. These behaviours, or whatever is subtly or not so subtly holding us back in our lives, in our avodas Hashem, are rooted in internal middot ra’ot (bad traits) which are rooted in the yezer hara (evil inclination).

Your body and soul are the palace of the Infinite One (the ein sof) where he resides. How do you think the King of the palace feels to find that not only have you allowed the strange god (el zar) of foolish, meaningless desire (yezer hara) to sneak in and set up shop but you the prince of the palace, even make it at home and listen to what it says!

– R’ Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, zt”l, the Piazecne Rebbe, Chovas HaTalmidim

How do we destroy our internal chometz? In the Mishna above Rabbi Yehudah says that it must be burnt. We must destroy it completely and immediately in the fire of our internal scrutiny, our moral passion and commitment to Torah. The Sages disagree, however, giving more nuanced guidance. It may also be crumbled up and dissolved in water, or given to the wind. Our internal chometz can be broken down (deconstructed) through understanding, contemplated and questioned until it becomes less compelling. Once weakened it can be dissolved by immersing in Torah study (water, as the Torah is called “mayim chayim/living waters”) which will fill more and more of the mind with holy thoughts, thus gradually disempowering, thinning out, and dissolving hometzdik thoughts (Likutey Moharan 1:35). As it says in the Gemarra, if you cannot overpower the evil inclination (yezer hara) drag it into the Bet Midrash (house of study). The sages also permit releasing chometz to the wind , which is prayer, as it says kol ha neshama tehalel Yah (let every breath praise God, Tehillim 150:6), which refers to prayer, as Hazal say: prayer is spoken with the breath (neshima) of the mouth (Bereishit Rabbah 14:9), which is also called wind of the mouth (u v’ruach piv– Tehillim 33:6).

As Pesach approaches then it is upon us (aleynu) to search out our internal chometz. What can be burnt, let it be burnt. What is not so easy to get rid of let us dissolve in the light of sechel (intelligence), bringing it into our understanding. Let’s then let it go through Torah study (immersion in truth) and praying for siyata d’shemaya (divine help).