One of the most defining aspects of Passover happens before the holidays begins – when Jews rid their homes entirely of chametz, or foods with leavening agents. Because the Jews were forced to flee the Egyptians before their bread had time to rise, they left Egypt with only matzahon their backs – the flat, unleavened crackers that are eaten during Passover in the place of all other grain products (and, if you’re Ashkenazi, all corn, peanut, mustard, soy, etc products as well). Jews are commanded not to own, eat, or even see any other leavened grain products in their home during the seven days (eight in the Diaspora) of Passover.
So before Passover, Jews do a shakedown of their entire home, hunting for chametz with a candle to see it and a feather to sweep it up.It is done at night, in the dark, which lends the hunt an exciting thrill, especially for kids. Many families will hide easily spotted chametz like Cheerios for children to find and “sweep” up with their feathers. It’s a wonderful and fun way to involve them, to get them to ask questions, and to remember why Passover is so important and special.
As with everything in Judaism, hunting for chametz is as symbolic as it is literal – Jews must dispose of any chametz they may find, although in practical terms, it is rare to see a crumb in such a clean house. Because I’m a convert, my bookshelf is saturated with esoteric tomes about Jewish law, and this year, as I read The Book of Our Heritage’s chapter on Chametz and Matzah, I came across a symbolism that seemed particularly meaningful for our day and age. One way of finding meaning in the hunt for chametz in a clean home is to view it as a reminder of the need to search for sin in ourselves, even – especially – in places where we consider ourselves morally clean.
The term “cancel culture” is fraught with emotion and heavily debated. Some people insist it is everywhere, and some people insist it doesn’t exist at all. Regardless of how one feels about cancel culture, it is impossible to deny that an increasing number of people have suffered the impact of having done or said something deemed incorrect by a retributive online mob who demands justice be meted out to the perpetrator. “Justice” might just be a vicious temporary flooding of the perpetrator’s social media accounts with ugly messages, but often goes so far as to include pressuring the perpetrator’s place of employment to fire them, an obliterated reputation, and/or threats of violence against the target, including their spouses and children. Those involved in this behavior will say, yes, people are losing their jobs and getting socially shamed into oblivion – but all actions have consequences, and the act of “canceling” someone via an internet pile-on that results in job loss or public humiliation is a natural consequence of saying or doing something offensive.
Thus, as with all religious and moral crusades from Catholicism to McCarthyism, those involved in the modern-day casting of stones from their mobile phones are utterly convinced of the righteousness of their actions and, at least to all appearances, give no second thought to contributing to the ruination of a stranger who has made a mistake or committed sacrilege against a progressive shibboleth.
And yet, to borrow a lesson from a prominent Jew, the process of righteously judging others of their wrongdoings means that he without sin should cast the first stone. Who among those in the Twitterverse or on college campuses are perfect? They may believe themselves purged of all racism, sexism, and transphobia, but surely there is no equivocation between impolitely refusing to call someone by their preferred pronouns and permanently crushing someone’s employment prospects and tarnishing their reputation forever – right? Have we lost our moral compasses so badly that these two things seem the same?
Have these people ever told an off-color joke or taken advantage of someone? Have they, even once, not quite told the full truth? Broken the speed limit on the way to work, or stolen something small from a grocery store? Opened a package left in the lobby that wasn’t theirs? Gotten the wrong change and not said anything?
Of course they have. You can smell their sense of guilt and apprehension from the way they so forcefully point at others. If everyone is looking at so-and-so, then they won’t be looking at me. At the risk of sounding gauche, this is also reminiscent of Passover – protecting oneself from the Angel of Reputational Death by painting your doorstep with someone else’s sacrificial blood. I’m too busy keeping others from committing sin – nothing to see here!
This behavior is nothing new, but the human potential for shameless hypocrisy that social media has brought to fruition allows people to destroy others’ lives by anonymously tapping on screens while taking no risk whatsoever themselves. They simply chew up their target and spit them out, always moving on to the next faux outrage, never for a moment stopping to reflect on whether their own hands are clean.
None of us are truly clean, because none of us are perfect. AsThe Book of Our Heritage says: “…even if a person has cleansed himself from sin and iniquity, as far as lies within his power, he should not boast, “I am purged of all sins,” for if he were to continue his search, he would surely find some more chametz which is the symbol of pride.” The Bible in Ecclesiastes 7:20 supports this: “For there is no man so righteous in this world who does only good and never sins.”
Those of us who choose to be Jews by choice have a unique opportunity to embed these values into our lives in a meaningful way, regardless of the level of observance we ultimately choose. Judging others with wisdom and restraint requires no existential religious impulse. This year, as we yearn for carbs and crave cheese pizza, maybe we ought to do a little more hunting for moral chametz in our own clean homes and grant others the grace we hope to be given.