The following story clarifies the traditional and spiritual elements of the process known as bedikat chametz, searching for chametz* in your home.
A Candle, A Feather and A Spoon
They were incredulous at my lack of enthusiasm. My two beautiful sons, just back from day school, were waving feathers in my face and whining:
"But we have to, Mommy! Moreh Leah, our teacher says we have to look for chametz with a candle, a feather and a spoon." [chametz typically means food that hasn't been prepared kosher for Passover, in this case bread and cake crumbs that might have literally slipped through the cracks.]
"Give me a break you guys! That's some archaic nonsense, cleaning for Passover, changing the dishes. Just getting the seder together is plenty for me!"
The older one, Adam (who has just turned seventeen as I write this, but who was about eight at the time), stares me down and responds with a characteristic flourish. "Mom, you always say it's important to try out all the Jewish traditions, at least once. Why not this time?"
O.K. They had me, but good. Gathering my dignity, I assumed my family role as dean of ritual and punted with a question:
"Why do we need a candle to look for chametz?"
"Because we have to look everywhere, even in the dark corners." They exclaimed jumping with glee.
"Why everywhere? Does it really matter if we miss a crumb?" (Housekeeping is simply not my field.)
"Mom, chametz is what grandma calls shmutz, it's under the beds, in the corners. You can't get freedom if there's shmutz around. This is about freedom!"
We were in the den. I’m thinking, right, only a bunch of men studying in a yeshiva somewhere could imagine housekeeping is about freedom. And then the younger one, Mark, pipes in with: "Mom, you know how you describe saying mean things as ‘getting shmutz all over your soul?’"
"Maybe that's really the shmutz that's hiding in the house. Like all the times I took the remote control away from Adam in this room, punched him and called him a jerk."
The little guy had really given offered something of substance to reflect on. Pushing the project a little further I asked, "So that’s a great explanation of what the real hametz is that we’re looking for, let’s try it in each room. And as we went from room to room, to my chagrin, they revealed lots of difficult moments which left each of us looking pretty shmutzed up.
The next question came: "Why do we have the feather?"
The older one put it perfectly, acute impatience in his voice that I even had to ask.
"MOM, you wouldn't want to use a pitch fork would you, not on our feelings?"
So we went from room to room, reflecting on the aspects of shmutz that had gotten onto our relationships in the home, collecting lint and crumbs, bobby pins and a missing sock - representative of our family chametz.
"So, Mom, why the spoon? We already know its for korban Pesach, to symbolize the Passover sacrifice that the Israelites did in the wilderness. What did sacrifice mean in those days? Why do we take the hametz and burn it up in the spoon?"
How do you explain "resistance" to kids? That people don't change so easily. All we can do is collect our little piles of shmutz from the year, lay them on the altar of our intentions and focus the light of hope and love such that some of our shmutz burns away. Ancient rather than archaic, the ritual turns out to be designed to help your mistakes decay into personal fossil fuel, which then becomes a source of energy for living with greater consciousness.
Who has time for all of this? It can be a sobering exercise to open up all cabinets and contemplate what’s within. What will be revealed? Truth to tell, some head for a kosher resort, or a cruise, and there are always paper plates. However, the drama is your life, and you are resetting the stage for transformation. More rigorous aspects of this practice include efforts such as changing over all of the dishes, pots and pans by putting out sets of these reserved for Passover only. Also, taping shut cabinets that hold the year-long sets of dishes, silverware, pots. What is really going on?
Since your home is a temple for your personal life, this Passover practice is a reminder to check that what you have on-site meets your criteria for sacred. Do this with friends, partners, children, help elders to prepare too. Closets in the children’s rooms can be memorable visits when done without punitive intent, just let their spirits and yours "see;" remember to include your study and the bathroom cabinets. A friend did this and what she saw through the mess in her daughter’s room was a troubled soul. She hadn’t really grasped just how badly this child was doing in life.
Cleaning is another kind of seder, way of creating "order." This ordering effect also takes hold when you restock and restack your cabinets after the holiday. Everything that is hametz goes out of the house. This means anything that could have been open to contact with leavened products. Some engage in a ritual of selling their hametz to, or having it held by, a non-Jewish person for a nominal sum.
Would that it could be as easy to release emotional hametz, like toxic memories lingering in objects better dispatched than retained. There is a paradox in the search for hametz. It is intended to commemorate the haste with which the Israelites leave Egypt; because of this the dough didn’t have time to rise and became flat bread, symbolized by matzah. Yet, it is the lack of haste and the increased attention to the detail of removing the hametz, that is the focus of this practice designed by our ancestors to help us reset the stage of our lives, that our intended new vision for living might emerge and actually be realized.
*Note: Chametz is also transliterated from the Hebrew as chometz, chametz, homers, and chumetz, among other variations. It is pronounced chah-meytz in modern Hebrew and chuh-metz in Ashkenizi parlance.