The Mishnah describes how we conclude the search for leaven on the eve of Passover eve:
With the last light of the fourteenth of the month, we search out the leaven by the light of a lamp. Any place where we do not bring leaven does not require searching…
We need not worry that a weasel has dragged something leavened from one house to another or from one place to another. For if this were so, it could have been from one courtyard to another or from one town to the next and the matter would have no end.
(Click here for the mishnah in Hebrew and English)
The ancient text brings to light and addresses a very real worry: It is possible to become obsessed with the Torah’s commandment to remove all leaven from your homes (Exodus 12:15).
Here, on the eve of Passover eve, the ancient text describes a ritual that redeems us from endless search, or else the matter would have no end. We would be endlessly enslaved to the commandment. Going forth from the obligation/ y’tziah mi-y’dei chova sets the stage for going forth from Egypt/ y’tziah mi-Mitzrayim.
As daylight gives way to lamplight, the final search for leaven is not a scrupulous hunt in the bright sun of clear distinction. In the end, it is the shadow that reveals, in our day, a few pieces of bread strategically hidden so as to be found. More for the soul than for the search, this is an act of both obedience and freedom. We have done the best that we can; there must be an end in order to make a beginning.
We declare closed the search for leaven, but the “yeasty” symbol of a candlelight quest continues to rise into new meaning.
The poet, Yehuda Amichai, watched his father light his lamp from the Mishnah’s flame and search his way into parable:
Last evening I gave you a parable
of my father who on the eve of Passover eve
would cut bread with precision
into exact cubes and put
them on the window sill so that he would be able
to find them with his heavy eyes
by the light of a candle dancing mitzvah dances
so that his blessing for burning the leaven not be
This is how we live:
directors of our selves
with perfect faith, almost,
so as not to be
(Click here for the Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)
The evening search is contrived—but not beyond belief. By candlelight we, along with the poet, learn from practice and parable the well rehearsed act of nullifying the leaven while leaving the drama intact. Such is the nature of perfect faith, almost.
This expository exposé leaves me breathless, not like that of a fright, but as if exhaling a long-held breath after being underwater. Sweet Torah, faithful sages, Jews of every grain, I am so grateful! This teaching belies the common era’s endless taunt that we Jews torment ourselves with infinite hair-splitting rules, rules, rules. Rather, the theme I keep discovering in our sacred Tradition is the contingency and ultimate inadequacy of perfect definitions, of stable structures immune to the withering winds of time, of being certain of anything other than Hashem Echad, there is nothing else! Reality under a microscope or through a telescope keeps revealing further and further depth and expanse, for The Holy One’s breath/voice has never stopped the creation that we also have been enlisted to participate in, endless, endless. We need never again settle for the security of bondage if we so choose, “there is a light that never goes out”, “The Torah is not in heaven”, it is ours to pore over and immerse ourselves in, for “everything is in it.” Yes, uncertainty is risky, the prophets enjoin us to trust NO ONE but The Holy One, so therefore following authority, while commanded of us, is fraught with the risk of misguidance and error, of the sin of “missing the mark”. But when our kavanah is on halakha, our Torah assures us that it is just as if we completed it properly, whatever the outcome; the way of teshuva is always available without shame or hindrance. We need never bind ourselves to a slaveholder again.
O is such a great post that any comment would be an act of arrogance. Chag Samaech v’Kasher.
Thanks for these beautiful insights to the Mishnah. Chag Sameach v’Kasher — Jen