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For Your Shabbat Table

Chametz vs. Matzah

        Matzah. Thin, flat bread: either identical, square-shaped crackers if they are machine-made, or round, varying personalities if they are baked in the original fashion. 
            Bread. Soft, light, fluffy sponge-like substance that almost melts when you put it in your mouth. White on the inside and perfectly crusted on the outside.   
            What is the difference between them? Their ingredients are identical (as long as the bakery eschews additives, colorants, preservatives).   The difference is air. Little puffs of this intangible element are trapped in the bread’s dough. They try forcing themselves out, upwards, and force the dough to expand. Remove the air, and matzah and bread -- chametz -- become indistinguishable.
            “Why is this night different form all other nights?” The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is one of the most stringent decrees in all of Torah. Pork, shrimp, stolen goods, none of these forbidden foods must be eradicated from one’s home the way chametz must be. Only idols and their accessories are judged so severely. If the only difference between matzah crackers and Wonder bread is . . . air, then what is the big deal with air? And why particularly on Pesach is it an issue?
            Two individuals. Both are equally gifted: equally bright, charming, wealthy and healthy. One is modest and one is a megalomaniac. What is the difference between them? Nothing. Air. Luft, as we call it in Yiddish. A overbearing sense of self which puffs up one’s self-image. It distorts reality. Ego has no relation to actual self-worth or awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Ego is a condition where self becomes all-consuming. Like a fireplace without a chimney, such a person has no escape valve for bloated subjectivity. It fumes inside, doing irreparable harm. 
Look at the letters comprising the words chametz and matzah. The mem and tzadi they both share. It is the heh and chet that separates them. Chet and heh themselves are virtually identical, only the heh, matzah’s letter, has an opening at the top. A chimney to allow some of the Me Generation out and afford room for a more realistic vision. It may be just a small hole on top: that is all that is necessary for Teshuva to begin its work.
            Yet self can have its advantages too. It can build a strong character, something which has come in handy in two thousand years of exile. But self-worth must be founded on something real and enduring. Something purposeful, not a flimsy mood-swinging ego. Self worth means knowing that each of us was created for a certain reason, a purpose to be accomplished solely by you. Once we destroy ego, in a process we call Pesach, we are capable of self worth. On Shavuot, fifty days later, it is already a mitzvah to have chametz. 
            A healthy self-image is one based on purpose and devoid of ego. It is not as easy as it sounds to separate the two and destroy one of them. It is understandable that when Pesach comes around we’re tired. But we are also gratified. We’ve removed all chametz; all that remains is a clean slate and a simple, flat cracker: the bread of Faith.

Night

There is a story about Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. They were conducting the Seder in (a town called) Bnei Brak and were retelling the exodus of Egypt all through the night. Until their students came to them and said: “Our Rebbes! The time for reciting Shema has arrived.”

 
All through the night they were retelling the redemption. All through the night. This story happened after Jerusalem was destroyed. The Roman oppression was crushing the remnants of Israel. It was only a matter of time before a number of these rabbis met martyrs’ death. It was night in the fullest sense.
 
What did they discuss? That night there was no talk of strategy, no ad hoc committees, no public relations. They spoke of the Redemption from Egypt. All through the night. It permeated the night and dispelled it. On this night the holy men were connected with a past which assured them of a future. The present had lost significance.
 
The time of the reciting of he Shema has arrived said the students. For immediately proceeding Shema is the prayer And gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth. “You have dispelled the darkness. We hear the echo of the Redemption.”

Reality

Something real. I can touch it, see it, feel it. It exists. 
Unless you start getting into quantum physics kind of stuff. 
Which I don’t need to: I have enough real things around me. 
Especially toys: big toys because I’m a big kid. 
And lots of toys, because the one who dies with most toys wins. And I want to win.

As long as I have enough toys nothing else really matters. People call me lucky. 
As long as I’m sleeping a sweet dream nothing else matters. People call me lucky.
As long as I’m drunk, high, spaced nothing else matters. Unless I wake up.
And because I might wake up, those who aren’t drunk and high feel sorry for me. 
Are they right, or am I?
“Reality is an illusion brought about by the lack of drugs” a student of mine (a jazz player) quoted to me.
 
So then, if I stop feeling good because of all my toys, am I lucky? Well yes, maybe.
 
Because there is something other than toys. 
Whether they are dangerous, bad toys, (drugs, self-mutilation, gang-violence):
Harmless toys (sitcoms and now, some insist, body-piercing)
Or even vaguely worthwhile toys, whose main job is to keep me happy.
If I break through my toy-induced contentedness, I am lucky.
 
Now I wake up to a whole new world. 
Whole: I have seen beyond a fractured, dimensional room to a seamless, timeless life. 
New: even if this life was here the whole time, if I just noticed it, then it is new. 
Not “new to me”: new. My perception counts. Not for a little, but for everything. 
He created this whole galaxy-filled, continent-filled, anxiety-filled, strife-filled existence only that I should be able to see through it all and see something different. 
Something new. 
 
(Torah speaks of the “new moon”, not because the-ancients-believed-that-the-moon-actually-disappeared-on-a-monthly-basis-and-came-back -but-now-we-know-better-thanks-to-the-telescope-in-my-backyard, but because if people, specifically the Sanhedrin, say something, pronounce something, determine something, then from a Divine point of view that pronouncement, that determination, becomes reality.)
 
Sometimes I wake up to this whole new world by thinking deeply into it – something stirring inside of me. Often because one of my toys broke, forcing me to look elsewhere.
 
This week’s entire parsha speaks of tumah tahara, and mikvah. If you translate them as impure, pure and ritual bath then you are sticking them into a toy world. They only resonate in a land beyond toys. And languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish don’t operate as well in this other world. 
 
But I don’t have to wait for a world transformation before getting to know taharah and mikvah; just rubbing shoulders with them helps rub off the murky film that shrouds from view everything but toys. 
 
Because, as the Kabbalah insists, we aren’t superficial or dimensional. We only think toys are us. Just shake yourself a little and the real you wakes up. To the real world.
 
 
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