Searching for Chametz

Searching for Chametz

Date: April 15, 2019
10 Nisan 5779

In preparation for Pesach, we spend weeks cleaning the house and removing all traces of leavened products (called “chametz” in Hebrew).  Interestingly, according to reports on the internet, even the President seems to be getting into the Passover spirit this year; he’s spent the past few weeks cleaning out his cabinet.

In any event, on the night before Passover, after we clean out the entire house, we do one last search for any further traces of chametz.  Before beginning the search, we recite a blessing on the removal of chametz.  This blessing raises a classic question. What happens if you were so scrupulous in your cleaning before this night that you fail to find any chametz in the search?  With other blessings, we always do something consistent with the blessing. For example, we bless the wine and then we drink it. We bless over washing hands and eating bread and we wash our hands and eat the bread. So if we say a blessing over removing chametz and do not find any chametz, was the blessing fulfilled or was it a wasted blessing; a blessing said in vain?

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) answers this conundrum by explaining that some have the custom of placing small pieces of carefully-wrapped chametz around the house so one who searches will be able to find chametz during this final search. By setting out some pieces of chametz ahead of time we can ensure that our efforts will not be in vain and we will fulfill the initial blessing.

After explaining this custom, the Shulchan Aruch continues by stating “However, it is obvious that one who does not perform a proper search but merely collects these pieces of bread has not fulfilled the obligation to search for chametz and has, indeed, recited a blessing in vain.” It is not enough to pick up the easy-to-find pieces and call it a night; that would mean you had not really fulfilled the purpose of a proper search.

In other words, process matters. In my work, I advise fiduciaries – those who are in charge of managing investments for the benefit of retirement plan participants.  When making investment decisions, fiduciaries have to go through a prudent process. The outcome of an investment decision matters much less than the process used to arrive at the fiduciary decision. As Ernest Hemingway said “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” In the end, we may not appear to have succeeded at what we tried to do; but through a proper process our efforts will not have been in vain.

Process alone, however, is not enough.  The process must be connected to something much greater than just picking up the easy-to-find pieces of bread we so conveniently laid out. Because the leavening process allows bread to rise, chametz has come to symbolize our inflated ego. Picking up the chametz pieces easily is, therefore, contrary to actually removing chametz.  If all we are doing is satisfying our ego’s desire for immediate success, an easy process actually increases our ownership of chametz.  

We need to create much higher goals to strive for. To achieve personal and spiritual growth, we need to search deeply, carefully, and honestly into our daily interactions and find those places where our ego (our “chametz”) is getting in the way and needs to be removed. 

In Psalm 61 we ask of G-d “B’tzur yaroom mimeni sancheyni – Lead me to the rock that is too high for me.” Don’t lead me to the top of a rock I can reach on my own. I want to make it to the heights otherwise unattainable to me; the places beyond my reach. It might feed my ego to say that I succeeded when all I did was pick up the pieces I set out a few minutes before my search. But is that what I’m here for? Should I really be worried that my work would be in vain unless I can pick up a few scraps of breadcrumbs? No. That is not enough.

Admittedly, it might be hard to reach for a higher goal; there might be some significant barriers to our success. However, as Sir Edmund Hillary commented about mountain climbing, it is not the mountain we conquer, it is ourselves!

Lead me to the rock that is too high for me and you will see how far I can climb.