Why does it matter whether or not we have leavening (chometz) in our lives on Pesach? And how on earth did such a seemingly random thing end up being a defining characteristic of the Jewish people?!
Just think about it: In Israel, even the most secular, non-observant Jews have a Seder. A recent poll put it at 97% of the population. And most of those also do at least some cleaning to rid of chometz! To be Jewish is to celebrate Pesach. And part-and-parcel of celebrating Pesach is ridding oneself of chometz, and being careful not to consume it.
The stock answers make little sense, at least to me: not eating chametz has nothing to do with the speed with which we left Egypt – that only explains why we eat Matza. And it is a non sequitur to claim that we rid the house of chametz in order to rid ourselves of an inflated, leavened sense of self – after all, beer and pasta are just as forbidden on Pesach as is a loaf of bread, and neither of them is leavened.
Indeed, when identifying what we can and cannot eat, we don’t distinguish between the various biological agents that can cause leavening – it does not matter, according to Jewish Law, whether the dough was affected by yeast, bacteria, or fungi. It does not even matter whether or not the dough rose at all! Chametz is not identified with the product – it is identified with the process. Nobody can look at a matzo, and know whether or not the matza was made in 5 minutes, 18 minutes, or over the course of a few days. And yet according to halacha, that makes all the difference.
And what is this difference? The law is that when we combine flour and water, chametz is only created when we stop working it. In other words, the dough must be entirely passive. If we keep working the dough, by law it never becomes chametz.
What does it mean for dough to become passive? It means that the baker chooses to stop working, to let nature run its course. It is like abandoning the dough to its fate, to the inevitable product of the natural world. Chametz is what results from the baker ceasing to work on his creation.
We Jews are the exceptions. Alone among the world’s people, we have persisted for thousands of years without having a land of our own. We have existed as a minority among other nations, resisting the inevitable assimilation, defying the natural world. And why? Because once a year, in the most treasured tradition of our people, even the most secular Jew instinctively knows that he or she must slave away to clean out the chametz in our lives, to defy the statistically unavoidable fate that surely must have swallowed us up in exile – whether in Egypt, Babylonia, or for two thousand years in Europe, Arab lands, India and even China. Except that it didn’t.
This is the essence of chametz. We refuse to acknowledge the natural ways of the world, and of people. We always work the dough, and we never stop. And in so doing, we are an ongoing miracle, remaining the dough and never becoming the chametz.
There is a midrash that explains that when Hashem made Adam, he mixed earth and water together, and kneaded the dough. The language is explicit: Adam was the dough in G-d’s hands, and on Pesach we acknowledge the primacy of this relationship. Jews maintain this relationship, always being kneaded and worked and even beaten by G-d. He never stops, because he is never finished with us. In the finest tradition of imitatio dei, we do the same thing on Pesach – the Gemara talks about making matza even on Pesach itself, but we had better never leave the dough alone! We must prove that we are worthy of the attention we personally receive.
And this explains why the punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is Kares – having one’s soul cut off from a relationship with Hashem. If we reject the relationship with G-d that we have on Pesach, then we get our wish: G-d reciprocates, and severs ties with us.
Rabbi Porter adds that this explains why the Gemara says that Chametz is the Yetzer Hora – our evil inclination. Our alter egos prefer to act as if G-d is not in our lives, as if we can (and should) do the wrong things because we don’t really want that kind of a relationship. Our yetzer horas, just like eating chametz on Pesach, serve to push Hashem away from us.
If we don’t want Hashem in our life, then all we have to do is jump out of the kneading bowl and rise in peace, letting nature run its course. It is a much easier life, and countless Jews, tired of the beating we have received, have chosen that path. It remains a choice that remains open to each of us every year. We can stay on the treadmill, or we can step off it, walking away from Hashem, and choosing to live frei, free. In that alternative world, statistics and nature would govern our existence. It is an option.
But if we want to have any relationship at all – and even the most avowedly atheistic Jews do – then we celebrate Pesach. We rid our homes of chametz, and we embrace even the most tenuous link to our creator. We acknowledge our exceptionalism, and our G-d-given potential to invent new things, to write new poems, to create. In the pantheon of those who do, and those who watch other people doing, we choose to be the actors and not the audience. Like G-d Himself, we want to make things happen.
Of course there is an Egyptian component to this as well. Egypt is a land that gets almost no rain at all – just a few inches a year. Egyptian life is one in which the natural, inevitable, world is the only conceivable relationship. The river rises, and it falls. Crops are fertilized and they grow. Everything happens like clockwork, just as predictable as the sun or moon. It is no surprise that Egyptians pioneered bread ovens, and the separate cultivation of yeast. They ate and drank chametz (bread and beer) at every meal. Egypt is the land of fate, where to survive all one must do is synchronize with what the world has been doing for millennia, and will continue to do for millennia. For the Jews it was (except for the slavery) an easy life, and one in which our forefathers only barely managed to survive with any unique identity intact. The Midrash tells us that had the Jews stayed any longer than they did, then that last shred of national identity would have been lost, and our lives would have ceased to have any real meaning save for harmony with nature. In other words, it would have been a complete loss.
The Jews were commanded to leave Egypt, and to leave that world. As Leibtag points out, eating Matza is a commandment to not be Egyptian (since the Egyptians were known for bread). But the obligation to avoid chometz is similarly an obligation to recognize that we Jews are not meant to live as one with nature. We are instead meant to always improve and manipulate and even exploit the natural world, to work, and to leave as little as possible to fate. To survive and thrive as G-d’s people, we must always vigilant against complacency, always on the move and pushing, pushing, pushing. We must demonstrate that we understand that G-d is not through with us yet, and that we can, both as individuals and as a people, be a force for change in the world, instead of merely a casualty of the change forced upon us.