The Ancient and Modern Practice to Free Your Soul

Glasswing by Julianna Swaney

One of the commandments associated with Passover is to remove chametz, leaven, from one’s domain. In contemporary practice, this requires not only getting rid of pasta and cookies from the cupboard, but also cleaning everything thoroughly (most especially the kitchen), covering up countertops on which leaven has been prepared, taking out dishes on which leaven has never been eaten, and making a lot of other changes. It’s a rigorous, physically demanding process of wiping, boiling, and sorting, but at the end of it, as Passover starts, there’s often a gorgeous feeling of purification.

The act of preparing for Passover also invites us to ask whether we’re removing the spiritual leaven from our lives as well as the physical stuff. Many traditional commentators describe leaven as puffy and swollen—think of bread rising. They talk about spiritual chametz as the puffy, overextended parts of our ego—the way we try to posture and preen, to be someone in the world (or in the room) rather than just existing as we are; we are encouraged to be gentle and modest, a mere humble matzah.

In order to do the work of unleavening, we must ask ourselves: Where do we take up too much space?

Where do we try to show the world how big we are? When do we—witting-ly or unwittingly—take up so much room that we make it harder for others to shine?

It’s a lot harder to sweep out our illusions about ourselves, the ways in which we try to put ourselves first, the ways in which we hear others a little less well because we think of ourselves as more important, the ways in which we take shortcuts on our integrity and deepest values. There’s no cabinet in which we can lock away our pettinesses and our meannesses for a week.

Rather, we have to seek it out. Like the search for physical leaven, we need to be intentional in our attempts to collect all of the parts of who we’ve been that are not nourishing, that are dragging us down. We need to look for it, and we need to be willing to find it—to confront it, to face it, to name it, to take it, unafraid, from where it’s been hidden all this time. This work requires tremendous bravery.

And then, when we find it, we must burn it, just as Jews traditionally burn their leaven on the morning before the Passover seder. We have to give it up completely, to let it go, to transform ourselves by putting the worst of who we have been on the pyre.

We know, on some level, that like the cookie crumbs that always seem to linger under the sofa, some of our hubris might remain. But it is the act of seeking it, naming it, and releasing it, to committing, year after year after year, to purifying the self and becoming the holiest version of who we are meant to be—it is the work of seeking out and releasing our internal leaven that is, in itself, the offering to the great transcendent beyond.

This, truly, is the work of the season—the journey to freedom.

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