According to the Torah we are told:
שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצֹּת וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי חַג לַיהֹוָה׃
“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the LORD.
מַצּוֹת יֵאָכֵל אֵת שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים וְלֹא־יֵרָאֶה לְךָ חָמֵץ וְלֹא־יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכל־גְּבֻלֶךָ׃
Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory.
And to this idea of the people inspecting and self policing their own houses to remove all hametz, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev shares a story:
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was walking once on Erev Pesach with his assistant on the outskirts of the city. He happened upon a non-Jew who was a customs agent. He asked him:
- Do you have any forbidden goods that have come from abroad?
(The agent replied):
- Certainly. Please come with me, for in my house there are many.
He conceded the matter, and went on his way. He then met a Jewish person, and asked with wonder:
- Do you have any chametz in your home?
(The Jewish man replied):
- Now?!? Behold, it is Erev Pesach now, after noon!
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak went on and met another Jew, and asked him the same question.
(The second Jewish man replied):
- Rabbi, are you mocking me? Or are you suspicious of my kashrut? Behold, the hour for burning and nullifying the Chametz has already passed!
The rabbi turned his eyes towards heaven and said:
‘Master of all worlds! Look from Your holy abode and see Your people Israel; how attached they are to Your mitzvot and how careful they are with them. The Russian Tzar, glorious king he is, with so many judges and policemen he has, and so many soldiers in his army and conscripted guards in all of the farthest reaches of the realm and in every city that is known, and they all guard the laws and supervise the borders, that one should not import goods without going through customs. And even still, violators are found in every place. And You, Master of the Universe, wrote in Your Torah ‘No leavened bread shall be found with you’, but You didn’t establish guards, didn’t establish taskmasters, didn’t create an army, and on Erev Pesach, there isn’t to be found any bit of chametz in the home of a Jew.
The idea here is that we Jews operate with love, honor, and fealty to God to such an extent that we will scrub and clean our houses and trash and burn our hametz with great effort, great rigor, despite the fact that all of us know - there’s no punishment if we don’t. There’s no goons, no brute squad, no kosher police knocking down our door if we stash an entire loaf of pandemic sourdough in our pantry just in case we get peckish. Nothing bad happens if I forget to sweep behind the heavy refrigerator before the holiday. And yet we trash the sourdough; we vacuum between the cushions; we boil our pots and cutlery; we bring the pesadic dishes up from the basement and drag the fleishedic regular dishes down to the basement. We do it all because we believe in God, Torah, and mitzvot.
Meanwhile, everybody here knows a friend of a friend who can get cheaper prescription drugs over in Niagra falls or Windsor or Hamilton; and so they send them over the border to get some. Most americans have snuck a bottle of booze or an undeclared box of cuban cigars or something past customs. Most of us have snuck a beer before our 21st birthday. Some of us have engaged in illicit superbowl gambling, or smoked a joint without a medical marijuana prescription. There are actual cops, actual customs agents, actual DEA soldiers - trying to stop us - and we’ve pretty much all done it anyways. The tzar … glorious king that he is … can not stop us.
It tells us something beautiful about observance and love of God.
But it also tells us something deeper about human nature - and that is - we are far more compelled by being bound together by our community to do what is meaningful than we are bound or compelled by violence or fear.
We are far more compelled by being bound together by our community to do what is meaningful than we are bound or compelled by violence or fear.
One year ago yesterday, a terrible thing happened in America, as thugs and bandits and hooligans tried to disrupt democracy with violence. The idea of America, that our compact is that we all agree to elect our leaders and then abide by the election even when we don’t like the result, was assailed and threatened existentially. We were this close to going from the pillar and the beacon of freedom and good government to just being another unstable south or central american country, another flimsy constitution that can be toppled with a little violence and a little demagoguery.
The idea of America is that we are compelled to trust one another and our fellow citizens, even though sometimes it’s about as much fun as scraping chametz off the sides of a roaster pan or scouring the grill with a wire brush. The idea of America is NOT that might makes right; that even when we are dissatisfied, we should never take up arms against one another.
Violence has never had it’s intended result in America. The violence against the Civil Rights marchers only steeled their resolve. Violence in the Civil War to maintain slavery only accelerated its demise. An attempt by one to impose their will on another through fear, intimidation, and threat - through force and police and military - instead of by compelling through intellect and right and love - is inherently unjewish. It’s the way pharaoh wanted to rule. It didn’t work. We Jews believe in being compelled by soul force - not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone. We keep our houses clean and our souls clean, not out of fear, but out of love. Not because of soldiers, but because of God. And think America feels the same way too. Love - fellowship - brother and sisterhood and common cause - not force. Not by the bullet, but by the ballot.