Removal of Chametz (Leaven)

Rav Avraham Yitzchaq HaCohen Kook –

“By the first day [of Passover] you must clear out your homes of all leaven.” (Ex. 12:15)

Why Clear Out Chametz?

Why does the Torah command us to destroy all chametz (leaven) found in our homes during Passover? It is logical to eat matzah; this fast-baked food has a historical connection to the Exodus, recalling our hurried escape from Egyptian slavery. But how does clearing out leaven from our homes relate to the Passover theme of freedom and independence?

Freedom of Spirit

There are two aspects to attaining true freedom. First, one needs to be physically independent of all foreign subjugation. But complete freedom also requires freedom of the spirit. The soul is not free if it is subjected to external demands that prevent it from following the path of its inner truth.

The difference between a slave and a free person is not just a matter of social standing. One may find an educated slave whose spirit is free, and a free person with the mindset of a slave. What makes us truly free? When we are able to be faithful to our inner self, to the truth of our Divine image — then we can live a fulfilled life, a life focused on our soul’s inner goals. One whose spirit is servile, on the other hand, will never experience this sense of self-fulfillment. His happiness will always depend upon the approval of others who dominate over him, whether this control is de jure or de facto.

The Foreign Influence of Leaven

What is chametz? Leaven is a foreign substance added to the dough. The leavening agent makes the dough rise; it changes its natural shape and characteristics. Destruction of all leaven in the house symbolizes the removal of all foreign influences and constraints that prevent us from realizing our spiritual aspirations.

These two levels of independence, physical and spiritual, exist on both the individual and the national level. An independent people must be free not only from external rule, but also from foreign domination in the cultural and spiritual spheres.

For the Israelites in Egypt, it was precisely at the hour of imminent redemption that the dangers of these foreign ‘leavening’ forces were the greatest. At that time of great upheaval, true permanent emancipation was not a given. Would the Israelites succeed in freeing themselves, not only from Egyptian bondage, but also from the idolatrous culture in which they had lived for hundreds of years? To commemorate their complete liberation from Egypt, the Passover holiday of freedom requires the removal of all foreign ‘leavening’ agents.

Cleansing Ourselves of Foreign Influences

In our days too, an analogous era of imminent redemption, we need to purge the impure influences of alien cultures and attitudes that have entered our national spirit during our long exile among the nations.

Freedom is the fulfillment of our inner essence. We need to aspire to the lofty freedom of those who left Egypt. To the Israelites of that generation, God revealed Himself and brought them into His service. This is truly the highest form of freedom, as the Sages taught in Avot (6:2):

“Instead of ‘engraved (charut) on the tablets’ (Ex. 32:16), read it as ‘freedom’ (cheirut). Only one who studies Torah is truly free.”

(Silver from the Land of Israel, pp. 151-153. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 244.)

Parsha Shmoth – “Strive to be a Man”


Shmoth (Exodus) 2.12 “He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

In the Mishna, Hillel declares, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” This is usually taken to mean that when other people are acting in an indifferent or cowardly fashion, one should stand up and be a mature, courageous human being.

Listen to Tablet Magazine Parsha in Progress Episode 7: The Leadership of Moses

podcast hosted by Abigail Pogrebin. author of ‘My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,’ and Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.


Parsha Mikeitz – The Choice of Simeon

The Choice of Simeon

Parsha Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

The Torah tells us that Simeon was named because HaShem heard that Leah was “hated” (B’rashith [Genesis] 29.33). The Torah also tells us that Yoseph was hated by his brothers because he was “Yisrael’s favorite” and because of his “evil tales” and his “dreams” (B’rashith [Genesis] 37.2, 3-5); and that they envied Yoseph (37.11); yet it does not tell us why Yoseph chose Simeon to be imprisoned in Egypt, it [merely] states, “They did not know that Joseph understood, for the interpreter was between them. And he turned away from them and wept, then returned to them and spoke to them; -”

“and he took Simeon from among them and imprisoned him before their eyes.” (42.24)

Rashi states that he took Simeon because it was Simeon who instigated the incident (of selling him to the Yishmaelites 37.28) by saying to Levi, “here comes that dreamer” 37.18-20 and who threw Yoseph into the pit – Rashi tells us that the Torah is telling us that Reuven exonerated himself before Yoseph: “And Reuben answered them, saying, “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!” (42.22)

I suggest that Yoseph, (by selecting Simeon) was hinting to his brothers that it was he, (Yoseph) who was hated, yet HaShem heard [his affliction] when he was in the pit (the Midianites lifted him out of the pit) for that is the meaning of Simeon – the text is hinting “but you did not listen?” 42.22 he was hinting so as to reveal himself to them for the Torah tells us that

      1. “he yearned for his brother” 43.30 and that
      2. “Benjamin’s portion was five time bigger than his brothers” (43.33, 34) and that he
      3. (Yoseph) “seated them according to their birth order” (how could he know?) so that they (his brothers) were
      4. “astonished” and that
      5. “they made merry with him”

The Torah (42.22, 28, 44.16) is telling us that they knew they were being “punished” – “Behold, his blood, too, is being demanded!” (42.22) – “And he said to his brothers, “My money has been returned, and indeed, here it is in my sack! ” Their hearts sank, and trembling, they turned to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” “ (42.28)

“And Judah said, “What shall we say to my master? What shall we speak, and how shall we exonerate ourselves? God has found your servants’ iniquity, behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and the one in whose possession the goblet has been found.” (44.16)