As many Jews around the world get ready to prepare their kitchens for Passover, Rabbi Deena explores the spiritual wisdom of Judaism’s baking and spring cleaning traditions. This sermon was originally delivered at the Saturday Morning Shabbat service on April 2nd. You can also listen to it in podcast form on the latest Shabbat Replay on Contact Chai or watch it on our YouTube.
If you’re a fan of the show “Great British Bake Off”, or you’re a bread baker yourself, you know that bread baking comes with a major source of anxiety: will this bread be under or over-proved, or will it be properly baked? (Side note: if you ever thought you could win on Bake Off or you’re looking to up your baking game, try out our Matzah baking workshop, The Great Matzah Bake Off!).
Proving bread refers to the chemical process of fermentation, in which the yeast consumes some of the carbohydrates in the bread and produces carbon dioxide, air bubbles, as a waste product. Bread that is under proved will be too dense, while bread that is over proved will puff up so much it can’t support itself, and then collapse. But, if you watch Bake Off, or got into the pandemic bread baking trend, or have been baking challah for Shabbat, you will know that even for the most experienced bakers, getting the proving right is as much an art as a science. So many factors affect bread’s rise — the ambient temperature, the amount of moisture in the air, how much gluten was developed during kneading, whether Paul Hollywood is staring you down. Perfect bread takes focus and attention and practice, yes, but also a decent amount of good luck.
It is precisely this chemical reaction, which makes food taste good and have a pleasant texture, that we avoid on Passover. On Passover, we are told to eliminate all chametz (literally, anything fermented) from our homes and our lives. This means not just bread, but anything which has fermented, or could ferment, from five types of grain: wheat, barley, rye, oat, spelt. Some Ashkenazi authorities even went so far as to say that we can’t eat things that could theoretically be made into flour, even if they don’t ferment, like rice and legumes. Which is to say, we’ve been taking this commandment VERY seriously.
Leavened and fermented foods are essentially things that have reacted to their environment and then started to grow with a mind of their own. So when we prepare for Passover, we’re seeking out things that have been growing and changing, crumbs of food we have forgotten about from months ago and things that have been sitting in the pantry for quite a while. It is a ritualized, Jewish spring cleaning: an annual calendar invitation to do a thorough clean of our homes and our lives at the beginning of the season of spring.
How appropriate, then, that we begin the month of Nisan, the first month in the Jewish year and the month of Passover, by reading about things which start to grow out of control — on skin, clothing, even in the walls of the house. Tzaraat, as Judah explained, is a spiritual malady masquerading as a physical aberration. On the skin, it can look like a disease, but the Torah also believes that tzaraat can affect cloth and stone, appearing in people’s garments and tent walls as well as the walls of their houses.
We might be tempted to look at the physical descriptions of tzaraat of clothing and houses — red or green streaks or spots that discolor and may spread, and think, “yes, mold.” And it’s certainly possible that physically speaking, the author of this part of the Torah saw mold and described it as the basis of this physical phenomenon. But then we would be falling into the trap of thinking tzaraat is about something physically “off,” not a spiritual problem. According to the Spanish commentator and mystical thinker Ramban, a tzaraat in clothing or walls of the house is a sign that God is removing God’s presence from the world. Tzaraat is inherently ritually impure, and things that are ritually impure cannot be in close proximity to God’s presence.
The Tosefta, an early rabbinic text parallel to the Mishnah, mentions these laws about removing house tzaraat in its list of laws that were never carried out, and whose purpose was to teach an idea, rather than command an action. In other words, don’t worry about the physicality of it, it might not even be real, so it’s definitely not about the discolored patch itself. Rather, these laws are meant to teach us to pay attention to when things in our life start to change from their essence into something different. To notice what has become stale, or escaped our attention, or started to take on a life of its own, and then bring our attention back there. Spend some time setting it aside, focusing on it, and then deciding if its presence has led to a diminishment of holiness around us. In which case, we cut it out.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes of this Passover cleaning ritual:
“Throwing out accumulated staleness and the dead hand of winter, cleaning the house and changing utensils, became a psychological backdrop for re-enacting emancipation.”
In two weeks, we will be eating our first matzah breakfast, maybe sleepy from staying up late talking about freedom. The next two weeks, then, are about preparing ourselves to be freed by physically transforming our homes and our diets, so we can start to physically enact the spiritual process of renewal. Two weeks, as it turns out, is also how much time it takes to be sure if something has tzaraat or not. It’s a ritually significant proving time, if you will, to help us decide what’s working, what’s bringing more holiness to us, and what’s not.
Some fermentation, some growth and change, is a good thing. Like bread, which is tastier than matzah (like, objectively, there’s a reason we eat bread 51 weeks a year…), we want our lives to grow and develop. We might find, in this spiritual and physical assessment, that parts of our lives are still underproved, and this can reinvigorate us to pay attention to them, to give them ideal conditions to develop. It can also help us recognize what is just right, what is ready to be savored at this moment. Those things, we want to keep. What we’re looking for in this cleaning and quarantining time, is the stuff that has gone off, that has grown beyond what is helpful and is now just taking up space unsustainably.
As many a British baker has sadly learned, things that overprove tend to blow up in the oven and then collapse in a sad, wrinkly mess. Both this parsha and this holiday season give us a ritual container to remove things that have changed beyond what serves us. When we scrub and vacuum and clean our space, and when we excise or cut out bloated beliefs and practices, we have more room for holiness, more room to be free and to pursue freedom.