Each spring, a systematic cleansing takes place in many Jewish households and houses of worship.
This scrupulous ritual begins in the days and weeks preceding Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites' redemption from Egypt.
The cleaning flurry is an effort to rid cupboards and homes of foods that are nonkosher for Passover. Foods that are not kosher for Passover are called hametz and they include foods made from five grains: wheat, barley, oat, rye and spelt.
“Depending upon a family's custom, they could turn over their entire kitchen,” Vered Harris, rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel, 4901 N Pennsylvania, said.
The Torah says any Jew in possession of hametz will be cut off from Passover.
One Passover Seder staple — matzah — is the only exception to the hametz rule and is considered kosher for Passover. Matzah, a flat unleavened bread often resembling a cracker, is featured prominently at the traditional Passover Seder, a ceremonial meal which includes special foods, prayers and rituals that help to tell the Israelites' redemption story.
Matzah is an integral part of the Passover meal because there was no time for dough prepared by the Israelite slaves to rise before they fled Egypt. There was no time to tarry, as the story chronicled in the Book of Exodus goes.
Harris, who became rabbi of Temple B'nai in July 2012, recently shared her first Passover-themed message as the temple's spiritual leader.
She said perhaps some Jews simply see the hametz rule as just refraining from leavened products. However, she said she prefers to interpret the holiday tenet in a more meaningful way.
Harris told temple members that leavened bread products can be seen as spiritual symbols of arrogance.
“All the things that puff up bread are symbolic of all the things that puff us up,” she said.
The rabbi said the Israelites left without leavening their bread just as “we are to leave our arrogance behind.”
Harris said Passover is a time to remember how God brought the Israelites out of slavery. Rather than boastful arrogance of this feat, there should be humility — and a commitment to helping free others who are enslaved today, whether it be through human trafficking, domestic violence situations, addiction or other forms of enslavement.
Free to worship
Harris said ridding the house of leavened foods and eating matzah is a “ritual reminder, a physical reminder, to be humble and remember our origins as a slave nation.”
“God freed us with a mighty hand, therefore keep your humility about you and help someone else,” she said.
Harris said individuals make numerous food choices every day.
“By making the choice to abstain from leavened foods, it forces you, on a continual basis, for a whole week, to think about the fact that we were set free for a purpose,” she said.
“Moses was a social justice hero. He stood up to an oppressor and said, ‘You've got to let them go so they can be free to worship their God.'”