Bo - On Chametz and Missed Opportunities


Translated by Netzach Sapir

Bnei Yisrael waited hundreds of years for the day when they would go free from the yoke of Egyptian slavery. When at last it comes, there was no time to savor the moment. Bnei Yisrael had to get up and leave immediately! In another moment the opportunity would be lost – the Egyptians will arrive and it will be too late. The story of the exodus teaches us not to miss opportunities, but this is no easy task. Often, by the time we finish examining the situation, checking out the possibilities, making up our mind and getting ready, the window of opportunity has already closed. The original meaning of the word opportunity is “the ship at the port.” Sometimes, by the time you’re finally ready to board, the ship has already sailed, and who knows when it will be back in the harbor again?

Yeast: The Real Yetzer Hara

It seems that the prohibition of eating chametz comes as a response to the human tendency to procrastinate. As everyone knows, the Children of Israel leave Egypt in such a hurry that they don’t even have time to let their dough rise. They have to respond to the sudden reality of the moment, make haste, and suffice with matzah. They leave as they are, and embark on their path to freedom. But no doubt there were some to whom the notion of going out on a journey without bread was unthinkable. They ignored the call to hurry, and when they finally went out, fresh-baked rolls in hand, they found themselves alone in Egypt, the gates out of the city closed before them, the opportunity lost.

The Sages likened chametz to the yetzer hara. Generally we imagine the yetzer hara to be a monster, a horned devil encouraging us to sin. How then do the sages compare it to chametz – something useful, tasty and healthy? In fact, this is the yetzer hara we must truly fear. It says in the Talmud: “Master of the world, it is known and revealed before you that our will is to do Your will, but who stops us? The yeast in the dough” (Brachot 17a). Rashi comments: “The yeast in the dough – the yetzer hara which causes us to miss opportunities.[1]” The yetzer hara with which we are constantly struggling doesn’t try to persuade us to do truly evil things. But whenever we arrive at a significant junction, it tries to tempt us into taking the easy and comfortable path, to refrain from making a real effort to change, to procrastinate, to delay and miss out.

On Pesach we read the Song of Songs. Behind the beautiful poetry hides a tragic story of missed chances – of the two lovers who failed to meet. The Song’s last verse opens with the words, “My beloved fled” – the meeting is missed, the opportunity gone. In the beginning of the Song, the lover tells of her anticipation for her beloved who will come to her, “I am asleep but my heart lies awake.”  But when she hears him coming – “The voice of my beloved is knocking; open for me my sister, my love, my dove, my beauty” – rather than jumping out of bed and running to open the door, she procrastinates and fusses; “I have removed my robe, how shall I put it back on? I have washed my feet, shall I dirty them?” By the time she’s done delaying and opens the door, it’s too late, her beloved is gone. “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had disappeared. My soul departed at his word. I searched for him but did not find him, I called for him and he did not answer” (Song of Songs 5:2-3, 6). The Song calls us to listen to the voices we hear in our lives.

There are some people who spend their whole lives waiting. They wait “to fall in love,” wait “to reach enlightenment,” or “to get their big chance.” They are waiting for someone to show them their purpose in life, for their soul mate to be revealed to them. It doesn’t always happen. All too often, such people find the world closed to them – no one offers them the chance they were waiting for. But the truth is the reverse: they are the ones that close themselves off to the world. They are deaf to the sound of life opening its gates to them.

As we’ve said, the word “chametz” is connected to the word “hachmatza,” missing out, and the prohibition of chametz on Passover is meant to teach us that it is forbidden to pass up opportunities. In the words of the Midrash: “just as we don’t machmitz (leaven) the matzah, so too we don’t machmitz (pass up) a mitzvah. If the opportunity to do a mitzvah presents itself, do it immediately.” (Mechilta Bo, Parsha 9).

Fear of Missing Out

\We live in a generation that puts an emphasis on spirituality through love and joy, without much attention given to fear and awe. My wife taught me what it means to serve G-d through fear – the fear of allowing opportunity to pass. Life is so special, every day is precious, and it’s very easy to miss it.

In order to perceive the depths of life, one requires a sense of perspective, which, alas, often arrives all too late – when facing one’s own mortality. Culture deals extensively with the type of soul searching which brings one face to face with the reality of his mortality. In Tolstoy’s classic novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist suffers from a terminal illness which causes him to reflect on the emptiness and meaninglessness of his life. Too late, he realizes that his obsession with ascending the ladder of the Russian bureaucracy and his desire to be a “good bourgeois” kept him from living the life he had wanted.

Sometimes, a person merits a second chance in his life. Paul Tsongas was a presidential candidate in the 1992 Democratic primaries. Tsongas was one of leading candidates in the campaign (which ultimately Bill Clinton would win), when he was suddenly diagnosed with cancer, and as a result he decided to withdraw. Later, the diagnosis was discovered to have been false, and Tsongas was fit to return to the race, yet he decided not to. He explained his decision saying, “no man ever said on his deathbed ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’” In the same vein, I once saw a sign which sums up the entire issue: “What’s the point of being in the fast lane if there’s no one to hug you at the end?”

At the end of the day, we must learn to identify the important parts of life. Only with this awareness can we grow. Belief in life after death doesn’t obscure the fact that this world is the world of action. The world to come is static. Only in this reality does the motion of life allow us to change our fate through our actions. 

Chametz and Turkish Tobacco

Let us conclude with a Chassidic story about chametz: On the eve of Pesach one year, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv (known as the ‘defender of Israel’) called two of his students. He told one of them to go out, from house to house, and find some chametz that he needed for a sick man. The other he instructed to bring him some Turkish tobacco (at the time, there was a ban on all imports from the Ottoman Empire into Russia because of the war between them). After an hour, the first one returned and apologized that he had been unsuccessful – there was simply no chametz to be found in the town; all had been burned in advance of Pesach. A few hours later, the second one returned leading a line of people bearing Turkish tobacco. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv raised his eyes to heaven and called out, “Master of the World! See how your people love you! The Russian Czar has policemen stationed on every corner to enforce the ban, but still everyone has all the Turkish tobacco that they want. And you have not a single policeman to enforce your will, yet nowhere is there a crumb of chametz to be found!”

[1] To Miss Opportunities: In Hebrew “Lehachmitz,” which shares the root of the word “chametz,” and also means to leaven. 

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