Ask anyone who has readied a home for Pesach. Getting rid of the
spaghetti and chocolate éclairs is easy. The tough part is ferreting
out chametz in its insidious forms: a trace contribution here, a
product prepared in chametz utensils there. It takes focus and
concentration to keep track of all the places chametz ghosts could
be lurking. Hunting them down takes energy and perseverance.
This is precisely the way it is supposed to happen. A phrase straight
from the gemara and Shulchan Aruch defines both what halachah asks
of us, and how we can wrap our heads around the underlying concept. We
are told to search for chametz even “in crevices and cracks.”
Chametz, we are told, represents the evil impulse within us. The
complex, laborious, time-consuming activities of searching for and
destroying our chometz demonstrate to ourselves how meticulous we need to
be in purging ourselves of our inner evil. We can begin by ridding
ourselves of the obvious and apparent evils we harbor within, but we
cannot end there. Evil is insidious. Like the invisible spores that waft
through the air, settle on dough and ferment it into chametz, a
microscopic contaminant of evil can sour an entire personality. Nothing
less than dogged persistence must be applied against the more subtle forms
of evil within us.
We are even less inclined to act against evil that remains entirely
undetected. R. Mendel of Vitebsk’s words are telling. He cautions
against feeling confident of a deep bond with Hashem when we find
ourselves transgression-free. Such a finding is meaningless. Perhaps, he
argues, we have not sinned simply because the challenge hasn’t presented
itself. Or perhaps we remain untainted by a particular transgression
because some external pressure, like embarrassment, prevents us from doing
what we secretly would like to do, and not because we have harnessed or
extirpated our evil impulses. It is quite possible, he says, that a person
could live a righteous life, avoiding any activity that requires
punishment, and yet learn that he failed in the chief task for which his
neshamah descended to earth – addressing some evil trait that lurked
This is what Chazal mean when they say that biur chametz requires
sereifah, burning. In dealing with our active misdeeds, it is often enough
to firmly resolve never to commit the sin again. Evil roots within us,
however, must be cauterized and burnt out.
Pesachim opens with the words, “On the eve of the fourteenth, we search
for chametz.” R. Chaim Vital read this beyond its apparent
meaning. Having completed thirteen years since his birth, a young Jew
stands on the threshold of responsible Jewish adulthood. Going into his
fourteenth year, he must examine himself for any faults that prevent him
from becoming a full Jew. When a Jew utters the berachah in the
morning thanking Hashem for not creating him as a non-Jew, he should ask
himself if that berachah is fully merited. Is he entirely the Jew
he is supposed to be? Is he truly free of foreign influences and habits?
Similarly, as a Jew readies himself for the approaching holiday of Pesach –
the holiday that renews our peoplehood and special place each year – he
must search for the internal chametz that blocks him from being the
complete Jew that is his true role in life.
How can the search be effective, when we are supposed to go beyond looking
for the evil that we know about? How can we recognize the more insidious
evil roots, when a person often does not even know what he is looking
for? Some of the answers emerge from the formal details of the halachah.
The law instructs us to search by the light of a lamp. We might have
preferred the brightness of daylight, or the intensity of a large torch,
but we turn down these options in favor of the simple, small lamp.
Ner, the word for lamp, is spelled nun reish. These letters
form an acronym for neshamah ruach, or two parts of the soul. If a
person struggles as best he can to discover his primary root of evil, if
he “searches as far as the hand can reach,” his soul will take him the
rest of the way, and guide him to the truth. “The soul of a person will
teach him.” A Jewish soul contains much wisdom; it knows the stuff it is
made of, and can communicate back to its possessor.
Similarly, help comes from the Torah and mitzvos we have performed. The
Zohar comments on the verse “or if he finds out that he has
sinned:” “Who tells him? The Torah tells him!” The Zohar means that
when a man’s power of reasoning is insufficient to discover the source of
evil within him, he can expect help beyond the limits of his own
intellect. The Torah he has studied, the mitzvos he has performed all
leave an imprint within him. While a person may not feel their presence,
they can be relied upon to light up the path of discovery for him. (This
is alluded to in the Mishnah’s instruction to search for chametz “by the
light of a lamp,” which resonates with “A mitzvah is a lamp, and Torah is
Other halachic details fall into place. While most forbidden items become
permissible when mixed in with a much larger quantity of permitted
material, chametz is different. The smallest amount of chametz
contaminates a much larger mixture on Pesach.
Evil corrupts. No amount of it can be tolerated or safely dealt with.
The yetzer hora acts like rot. The smallest quantity can infect
healthy material, and spread its disease. Like gangrene to the body, it
must be stopped, or it will take over.
We also understand, in a different way than we did above, why one opinion
insists on eliminating chametz specifically by burning it.
Toras Avos offers an analogy. Imagine a person who must clear a large
stand of trees. Laboriously, his axe fells them, one at a time. After a
while, he realizes that he can never complete the job in his lifetime.
He has another option. A controlled burn can clear a huge tract in a
small amount of time. He can light a large fire that can burn all the
unwanted trees in one vast conflagration.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, Pesach, pgs. 229-231
2. Pesachim 8A
3. Orach Chaim 431:1
4. Peri Ha-Aretz, Ki Sisa
5. Pesachim 5B
6. Pesachim 8A. The phrase describes the limit of responsibility in
searching in hard to reach places.
8. Leviticus 4:23
9. Mishlei 6:23