The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), one of our greatest rabbis, provided an important answer to a question which each of us asks from time to time.
“Why are we here?”
Indeed, we navigate our lives, apply our God-given talents, interact with others, but ultimately what is the purpose of it all?
The Vilna Gaon considered this question, and suggested that, simply stated, the purpose of life is to “turn ourselves into something better.”
If only it were that easy.
Seven months ago, during the High Holidays, we committed ourselves to a self-improvement plan. Perhaps we pledged to be more patient, or to spend more time with family, or to be less stubborn. And here we are at the dawn of Passover, with many of those promises unfulfilled.
As we prepare to recall our liberation from Egypt, we devote ourselves to various physical acts. We clean. We cook. We re-organize.
But is that all? Is there another kind of chametz?
The great Sage, Rabbi Alexandri is quoted in the Talmud, as saying, “it is our will to perform
But what prevents us from accomplishing this. Says Rabbi Alexandri, “It is the yeast in the dough.”
The esteemed Rabbi Yehudah Prero offered an interesting on what “yeast in the dough”
He said, “chametz... represents all of our character flaws such as haughtiness, jealousy, unbridled passion and lust. Just as we need to remove every speck of chametz from our household, so too we need to remove every speck of spiritual chametz from our beings.”
By its very nature, winter moves us indoors. We are prone to hibernate. Perhaps we have neglected our bodies. Perhaps we have become spiritually flat, or developed various
Perhaps, like Pharaoh, we have hardened our hearts.
But just in time, at the first sign of spring, we are encouraged to liberate our souls. During Passover, we speak of freedom. We greet the world with optimism. We can more easily step outside and embrace God's physical creation.
And possibly, during these physical pursuits, we can begin to ask ourselves, “What yeast have we acquired during the winter months?”
Have our egos become inflated? Have our souls become bloated? What leaven have we acquired, as we've internalized broken promises, failed relationships or personal
But there is good news as we approach Passover. We possess the capacity to embrace newness and optimism. It is the Jewish way.
At the Seder table, we rekindle friendships and reinforce family ties. We eat, sing, and read sacred stories. We remember those who came before us, and embrace family and communal rituals.
And within this we create hope.
As we enter the final days before Passover, let us commit to ridding ourselves of our stubbornness, our biases and our spiritual bloat.
In particular, during these exceptionally fractured times, let us commit to steer clear of those topics which divide, and embrace those which unite.
Is it time for a new approach? Is it time to reboot our relationships? Is it time - as we reflect upon the simplicity of matzah — to flatten our souls?
Indeed, if we are prone to ask ourselves, how can we make ourselves into something better, let us also consider what chametz we need to get rid of in order to lessen our load.
What is the bloat which enslaves us? What burdens are we self-imposing? What is our yeast in the dough? It's time to get back to basics and make space for what really matters.
As Passover arrives, it's time to flatten our souls, and embrace those simple things which truly set us free.
Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman