Rabbi Alana Alpert delivered these remarks before the board of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
Last week during our monthly Brunch & Learn at Congregation T’chiyah, I brought a series of commentaries on the concept of Chametz -- different ideas about the meaning of the Passover practice of cleaning, burning, and refraining from leavened bread. I shared a number of different ideas, many of which, inspired by the chassidic tradition, spiritualize the practice. For example, the Baal Shem Tov understands chametz as anger, pride and arrogance. I heard a resounding rejection of these interpretations. Folks argued that such self-help interpreted the practice in ways that were far away from the core message of the holiday, which is, as the Torah says: “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt…”
The T’chiyah community prides itself on its orientation towards social justice. So they challenged me to think hard about the relationship between this practice and our commitment to justice and freedom.
The practice of ridding ourselves of chametz seems to me to be a very personal practice. As opposed to so much of our liturgy, the language is singular and not plural. At the end of the ritual of bedikat hametz, the search that happens the night before the holiday, we recite:
“Any hametz that is in my possession and that I have not seen, that I have not observed, that I have not removed, and that I do not know about shall hereby be annulled and shall become ownerless like dust of the earth.”
Perhaps this is why the link is hard for me. I tend to think about social justice in communal terms -- for example, racism that lives in institutions rather than interpersonally. I resist focusing on interpersonal racism because if we focus on it too much, we might lose sight of the forest for trees.
But since I am a rabbi in addition to being a community organizer, it is important for me to think about the ways we hold these ideas in our hearts and minds, and how that impacts us spiritually. Passover is a chance to leave behind all kinds of bad ideas -- in particular the idea that one group of people can be superior to another. Chametz represents all that stuff. When we declare it ownerless, we put it out of the world of human relationships. When we set fire to it, we throw off the yoke of its control.
So the challenge is can we do the internal work the clearing of chametz demands, and have that fuel us for the critical work of fighting oppression. This holiday, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is asking its’ members to use the hashtag: #ActOnPassover when we organize our communities to act for justice. Detroit Jews for Justice is answering the call by joining Detroit Public Schools teachers, students and parents in Lansing on Tuesday -- we’ll urge lawmakers to help ensure that every child can attend safe, healthy and welcoming neighborhood public schools where students and educators are well supported and respected.
May Passover help us to clear away the spiritual and emotional chametz that keep us distant when our neighbors invite us to stand with them. May we live out the charge that in every generation each of us must feel as if we personally were redeemed from slavery.
Wishing you all a liberatory Pesach and a chag Sameach!