Virtual Talmud

The Torah prohibits eating bread or any form of leavened product, chametz, during Passover. The penalty for eating or even owning chametz is severe: being cut off from the people Israel (Exodus 12:15). Such a punishment sounds descriptive rather proscriptive: those who wantonly eat bread on Passover are certainly making a statement of disengagement from the community and our ancestral traditions. That begs the question, though, of whether God really cares if we eat bread on Passover.

I gave up long ago the belief in a fire and brimstone God who strikes us if we eat bacon or skip Yom Kippur services. The image of such a vengeful God reflects medieval Christian polemic against the God of Hebrew Scriptures rather than the Jewish belief in a just and good God. If God is just, punishment should fit the crime. I know too many good people, some who are kosher and keep the Sabbath and others who do not, who suffer with illness and tragedy out of proportion to any real or imagined “sin” they may have committed. That makes it clear to me that God is not causing these troubles, though God can help us cope and survive them, as Rabbi Harold Kushner so eloquently explains in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

Putting aside the fear of punishment, there are other good reasons for refraining from eating chametz on Passover, both rational and emotional.

The great medieval codifier and philosopher Maimonides believed that God as the Great Rationalist has a reason for every commandment. While we should seek to understand these reasons, even if we cannot, we can trust that some good will come from our observance of them.

Rationally, there are several good results that come from refraining from chametz on Passover. The first, of course, is strengthening one’s Jewish identity (which is important not only for a sense of belonging but so we Jews can fulfill our role in bringing the values of justice, balance, and equality to the world). Refraining from eating chametz also teaches us self control (the root of all success in the world) as well as the more subtle value of the effort we make to eliminate even traces of what holds us back from being our best selves (in the mystical sense that chametz represents that which puffs up and erodes our own best selves).

These are all good reasons, but not the reason I do not eat chametz on Passover. I do so for an emotional reason: It is one of the many ways I show my love of God.

If you truly love someone, you try to do things which will please the other person. It may be bringing flowers or some other gift. But the best gifts, and sometimes the hardest, are those of one’s time and consideration, like taking out the garbage without being asked or saving them the last slice of that delicious chocolate cake in the frig. A little inconvenience is the least one can do for someone one truly loves. The same goes for God. God doesn’t need us to refrain from eating bread on Passover, but I believe God is pleased when we do. That’s enough for me to stick to dry flat matzah for eight days. It is the least I can do for someone I love.

–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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