The setting was the back alley behind our house in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. That was the rocky dirt strewn location mostly for our garbage cans and where the “garbage men” now known as sanitation workers would ply their trade by engineering a truck that looked wider than this alley way itself through this long tubular stretch of co-owned property to essentially clean up after us.
On Erev Pesach this is where we gathered together with our last vestiges of Chametz before we would set it wildly ablaze. The fire started out small winding its way around the obviously combustible wooden spoon that was intended apparently to facilitate the spread of the fire to the rest of the contents of this little bag that contained our 10 pieces of bread that were rapidly turning into toast.
Also inside this doomed little package was the feather that swept the crumbs from our window sill rooms and the candle that illuminated the area we were sweeping. We used to keep the lights off in these rooms so as to heighten the ancient or traditional feel of the ritual. Last night we kept the lights on and burning brightly as we marched through the house once again.
Over Shabbos we studied up on this greatly sought after and exciting practice. We read again so as to reiterate that this search for Chametz on this night before Pesach is only superficially about collecting those now already pre-wrapped tiny pieces of bread.
Chametz is also representative of all the so called unleavened or perhaps undesirable ideas or distractions that you may have harbored during the course of the previous year. Chametz is the evil that sometimes invades our hearts and minds when we might lose our temper or say a harsh word to a family member or co-worker. Chametz can be that e-mail you wish you could have or would have deleted before you pressed the send button.
So the search for Chametz is not only about a quick familial parade through bedrooms and basements. Looking for Chametz means searching your thoughts, intentions and heartfelt feelings that sit latently inside us. That is the Chametz that needs to be expunged from our midst on Erev yom tov.
It is said of the Baal HaTanya—Ren Shneur Zalman of Liadi that he stayed up all night looking for Chametz on the night before Pesach. He lived in a one room apartment in the Russia of the 1700’s.
The little contained blaze in our backyards are a nice tidy ceremony that the kids enjoy more than most. And it is a wonderful representation and symbol of something that we probably al need to internalize a little more.
I always wondered why the candle that was simply doing its job of lighting the way had to be included in the contents of the bag or envelope that is burned with the Chametz. The explanation I found was intriguing and almost poetic. And that is that an object that throws a spotlight on Jews deficiencies deserves a fate of being burnt.
So enjoy the ritual, watch the flames and think about it.