When I awoke this morning, I was disappointed to see it raining outside. California can certainly use the water during this time of drought, but on this particular morning it’s traditional to burn chametz, and I saw over an inch of water in the outdoor fire pit. It crossed my mind that I could empty it out and bring it under our roof’s overhang, although perhaps that would be a fire hazard. My lazy bones suggested that I could do the fire later; perhaps the rain would let up.
But my wife encouraged me to go ahead, especially since our son would soon leave for school, so I dumped out the water, moved the fire pit, and laid down aluminum foil on it. As I started arranging crumpled papers for the fire, the rain lessened and petered out.
As Scripture describes the holiday of Passover, we are instructed to rid our dwellings of any chametz, which is any food that rises with yeast, like bread. (Ashkenazic Jews extend the concept to include foods that expand in water.) Traditionally, we burn our remaining chametz the morning before the first Passover seder.
The chassidic masters teach that the chametz represents our arrogance, being puffed up with our own accomplishments, having an inflated ego, and that Passover is a time to expunge that characteristic. So the fire eradicating chametz from our dwellings takes on the symbolism of self-improvement through cultivating humility.
As I arranged the crackers and cookies, bread and granola, it occurred to me that chametz can really be anything that comes between us and The Divine. Anything that breaks that connection or reduces our awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, the Unity that undergirds our world and our experience. Arrogance is certainly one of those things, because when I place myself over and above others, I lose touch with the fact that we’re all connected, that we’re all in this together. It makes about as much sense my right ear claiming superiority over my left foot. But of course it’s easy to fall into the more individualistic, “self”-centered view.
In addition to pride, though, other views that we attach to can be equally damaging to our connection with G*d. I may cling tightly to a narrative that I have been persecuted more than any other people, or that my personal pain or hardship is greater than others’. I may carry resentment that I am misunderstood by those around me. And even though there may be truth in these thoughts, by focusing on the disconnection, I may actually increase and perpetuate the rift between me and my fellows.
So as we lit the fire together (my wife and son and I), and I saw the various kinds of chametz starting to burn, I realized there are many kinds of snares that can reduce our experience from what the Buddhist’s call “great mind” –a consciousness of unity and connection– to “small mind” –a constriction of separateness and struggle. And I committed myself anew to letting go of as many of them as possible.
And that’s when the smoke started getting in my eyes.
So I thought, “What’s the lesson in the smoke?”
If the chametz represents the obstacles between us and The Divine, then surely the fire represents the passion of the soul to eradicate those barriers and connect to the great Unity. And in that context, it became clear to me that the smoke is the pain that arises from letting go of the obstacles.
It’s rarely easy to give up those beliefs and habits I’ve become attached to. I may fear losing my sense of self, my “identity”. Or I may worry that if I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder from past hurts, as a constant reminder and warning, then perhaps I will allow myself to be hurt again. And if I give up my resentment at having been misunderstood, then perhaps I will take the chance of showing myself again, and that increased vulnerability may be too scary to contemplate.
Moreover, truly letting go of some of my attachments requires keenly feeling the degree of the pain that caused them, and the pain of having stayed attached to them, and it’s not easy to open myself to those intense emotions.
As I stood around the fire watching the swirling smoke, it occurred to me that while some stances towards the world reduce the pain of letting go, there is no place to stand that is invulnerable. No matter what our philosophy or approach to life, no matter what our religious or spiritual path, we are vulnerable to both the pitfalls of chametz, and the smoke that comes when we burn it away. The winds of fate are unpredictable, and each of us takes our turn at struggling to become the best we can be. And where there’s the fire of self-improvement, there’s the smoke of the difficulty of experiencing the change.
And as these thoughts played across my mind, the sun came out and shone on our little fire. I kid you not: bright sunlight flooded the scene.
So my prayer for all of us is that this year, may we see clearly what our next challenge is, what area is best for us to put our growth efforts into, and may we put sustained effort into letting go of those beliefs and habits that separate us from each other and The Divine, and may we have great success in achieving a greater sense of unity for a larger portion of our lives. May our souls sing with joy as we progress.
And may we remember, when smoke gets in our eyes, that it’s all part of the process of growth. And to be engaged in the dance of self-improvement is the goal, and the journey is what we’re here for, the process is what our soul’s passion burns for. And where there’s fire, there’s smoke.
May the light of our fires of self-growth light up the world, and warm all the inhabitants thereof.