Ancient Wisdom for a Modern Plague

The season of cleaning and “eating down” what is in our closets and freezers is upon us. The Passover restrictions on leavening agents help motivate us to check out all the groceries we collected during the year, from the bagels we froze after Yom Kippur break-fast to the box of Eggo waffles still waiting for our grandchildren to visit. The Torah (Exodus 13:6-7) states, “For seven days, eat bread made without yeast (chametz)… Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders.” Chametz specifically refers to wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye that has become wet and been allowed to remain 18 minutes so that the leavening process begins. But unlike many other food prohibitions, where one simply may not eat a particular item, chametz is to be searched for, destroyed, or sold so that it is totally removed from the home. Additionally, even the smallest amount of chametz never loses its identity when mixed in to other foods, so anything connected with it  would need to be removed. What is so bad about leavening that it is treated so harshly?

Consider the difference between the flat matzah and the airy challah roll. The roll is puffed up through the leavening process. It is filled with hot air as it rises in the pan. By contrast, the matzah remains modestly flat, not “putting on airs.” Judaism is rich with metaphor, the language of creative meaning. Generations of sages looked at the difference between chametz and matzah and jumped past the ancient story and into our most intimate lives. They observed that, for chametz, the air that puffs up the dough represents our ego. Ryan Holiday, in his book Ego Is the Enemy, writes, “The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.” Just as chametz makes bread look bigger than it is, so too does an ego fill us with self-importance that is nothing but hot air.  Of course, our ego has an important role in establishing our self esteem and preserving our dignity, but how great a gift it is to take a week off from our usual posturing and self-importance to put our ego in check.

Some have linked chametz with the so-called evil inclination, or yetzer hara. Judaism actually values the inclination to succeed, be successful, compete, and even have dreams and desires. But we are cautioned to keep those inclinations in check, listening to our more noble yetzer hatov (good inclination) reminding us to collaborate more than compete, love instead of lust, be selfless rather than selfish. Just as even a little fermentation, like the starter dough the pioneers carried with them, can sour the dough in our pot, so we must take one week off from letting our ego and inclination towards evil lead our actions.

It is very fitting that on a holiday commemorating our escape from slavery and celebrating redemption and freedom, we go beyond the physical application of the Exodus story and apply it to the human tendency to be enslaved by our ego, desires, and emotions. Yet, holiday tables have become flashpoints for incivility and intolerance. It has become the 11th plague!

Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham, describes this problem in his 2009 essay, “Keep your Identity Small”:

“You can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities.”

Any discussion in which arguments on a given side are tethered to someone’s identity is hard to make productive, because of how it causes a clash of ego. This is why religion and politics are such problematic topics. And yet, these are important topics that we need to be able to talk about in productive ways when families and friends gather around holiday tables. On Passover, we link our stories of redemption and freedom to those of generations past. If we can’t do so in peace, tranquility and modesty we will not be able to make progress towards a redeemed society.

Shane Snow from suggests that, if we can get better at separating our ego from our intellect, we‘ll be able to have more productive debates, rather than having our debates simply calcify our polarized opinions. And as Donniel Hartman suggests, keep your discussions focused on ideas and ideals, values and virtues, rather than on one’s personality and ego.

So separate yourselves from chametz for a week both in food and spirit. Train yourselves to be modest like matzah and, when discussions become hot, tell them to “let go of my ego!”