Thursday, April 14, 2011

Selling Chametz

As most of you probably know, I’m not much given to subterfuge or to the kind of fancy legal, footwork that makes licit behavior that any outside observer would recognize easily as, at best, a clever way of avoiding the implications of having to obey the simple meaning of the law. I am, in that vein, not much of a fan of the eiruv, a way of erecting phony, non-existent walls around a neighborhood so as technically to create the kind of private domain in which one may carry things around on Shabbat. (If the law forbids carrying things around in the street on Shabbat, then how can it be noble or pious to figure out a technical end-run around the simple meaning of the law?) Nor am I especially enamored of the various techniques our tradition has developed to assist us in finding clever, formally legal ways to avoiding obeying the Torah’s instructions regarding the posthumous disposition of our estates. I’m not even wild about using a shamash when I light the Chanukah menorah so as to be permitted to use light that the law specifically forbids us to use. What can you do? Who ever saw a menorah without a shamash?

A surprising amount of these legal subterfuges seem to me to be centered around Pesach and in that regard I can also reveal that I am also only a theoretical proponent of the siyyum system of fast-evasion—the one we all, including myself (who actually am a firstborn son), participate on Erev Pesach to create the context in which we are encouraged to feel good about skipping the fast that our own tradition makes incumbent upon us merely because we “happened” to have been present at morning minyan when someone (or, in this year’s case at Shelter Rock, a group of people) formally celebrated the completion of one of the tractates of the Talmud. And then there’s the whole magic declaration we recite Erev Pesach somehow turning whatever chametz is still hiding undetected in our homes into dust. Surely that only makes us feel better about not having cleaned as well as we should have without actually making the elusive breadcrumbs turn into actual dust! But the single example that feels the most weird to me has to do with the sale of chametz.

I do it. I facilitate lots of people doing it. I accept the legality of it all. That part, actually, is easy to explain. The law forbids us to have any chametz at all visible in our homes throughout the eight days of Pesach, but only forbids us to maintain hidden away in our homes chametz that actually belongs to us. And upon that slender thread hangs the whole concept of selling chametz—since the chametz hidden away now belongs to someone else, it can be present in a Jewish home throughout Passover as long as it is not actually visible. For all these years that I’ve not only sold our own chametz but also facilitated hundreds, by now probably thousands, of others in selling theirs, I’ve found the whole concept peculiar. We sell our chametz legally, but not quite emotionally. If the non-Jew to whom I sell all the chametz of all the people who have charged me with selling theirs were actually to show up during the holiday to pick up his property from wherever we have it squirreled away, we’d all faint dead away. Nor has anyone ever actually bothered to ask me if the sale went through or if, as happens far more regularly, the purchaser failed to make the second payment, in consequence of which the sale fell through and the chametz as a consequence reverts to its sellers. (The first payment is one dollar. The second payment is one billion dollars less one dollar. The chances of the second installment being paid in full and on time are admittedly remote. But you’re not supposed to know that until after the purchaser fails to make his payment, not before. And if you know he is going to fail to make that payment, then have you really sold him the goods in question in any meaningful way other than the one that suits the precise letter of the law?) In a sense, it makes no sense. It’s the kind of legalistic sleight-of-hand anti-Semites can’t get enough of. It seems, at least at first blush, to make a mockery of the concept it purports to support: we are supposed to rid our homes of chametz, so we sell it specifically so as not to have to get rid of it.

And yet, as the years pass, I find myself more and more kindly disposed to the whole concept. As I said, I’ve always done it for myself and my family. But I’m feeling better about it now than I once did. In a sense, it’s part of the whole asymptotic thing that underlies even the finest spiritual endeavors. Do you remember what asymptotes are? (You knew in tenth grade, assuming you went to a school where they made tenth graders take geometry.) How it all works in the greater world of higher mathematics (if tenth grade geometry qualifies as high mathematics, that is), who can remember? But the simple answer, the one I’ve retained over these many years since tenth grade—and, just to put things into perspective, I began tenth grade the fall following the Six Day War—is that asymptotes are the possible/impossible combination of line and curve that meet only at infinity, at the infinitely distant end (that does not and cannot actually exist, but which also must exist) of the x- or the y-axis on a geometric grid. Outside the world of math, then, the word has come to denote the possible/impossible task, the doable/undoable, the possible/impossible, the finite/infinite. We are commanded to rid our homes of chametz, just as we are commanded to use the mitzvah as a spur to inspire us to rid our hearts of sin and the desire to sin.

Both are possible in theory. Why can’t a house simply have no chametz crumbs at all in it? Surely, it can. But, equally surely, it also can’t. Our homes are big, complicated things. Even modest homes have uncountable corners and crannies and nooks, endless numbers of movable/unmovable bookcases and breakfronts and dishwashers. You can wash a dish and satisfy yourself that it is spotless…but which of us could ever feel that certain about our homes, that there is not a crumb lurking somewhere behind something, that we have investigated every conceivable hiding place in which such an elusive crumb even could secrete itself. Who could feel that way? I’ll tell you who—the same people who can feel with absolute certainty that they have conquered the yetzer hara completely, that the propensity to sin has been totally eradicated from even the inmost chambers of their human hearts, that even in the most obscure of the labyrinthine byways of their intellects there lies in wait no unnoticed yearning to behave poorly, to turn away from God’s law, or to embrace vulgarity or depravity.

Which of us could ever say that and mean it? I’ll tell you who—the same people who feel completely certain that they have found every last crumb of chametz. Such people naturally have no need to bother selling their chametz to a non-Jew! Indeed, it would be slightly fraudulent to do so since the sale would involve receiving theoretical payment for something we are completely certain does not actually exist! But, needless to say, there are no such people, not in the Pesach category and not in the human soul category either. We are all works in progress, all of us curved lines heading towards a distant goal at the existent/non-existent end of a trajectory that itself exists, or appears to exist, for as long as we have the koyach to shlep ourselves forward through another year, through another yontif, through another couple of seders. And that, I have come to realize, is why we should all feel entirely reasonable about selling our chametz. Not because the whole thing isn’t a bit absurd—which it surely is—but because, in the end, it is far more noble than not doing it would be. It is, or should be, an act suffused with humility, with acceptance of our human frailty and endemic inability to clean our houses or to cleanse our hearts. It is the semi-desperate act, that sale, of people who want to be chametz-free for the holiday, but who know that it is no more possible to be certain than it is to be certain about what is (or isn’t) hiding within the matrices of our human intelligence or the darkest corners of our all too human hearts.

All you can do is all you can do. You can try. You can strive. You can work diligently on the house, cleaning it as best you can, hoping you found all those crumbs. But there will always be some you missed. How could it be otherwise? And while we’re selling chametz anyway, which of us doesn’t pack away a few things that we know perfectly well are still there in the basement but that it seems a shame to discard or give away. We’re selling the stuff anyway! I do it too. We all do. But the key is not to fall prey to the absurdity of the gesture, but to allow the underlying concept to instill a kind of humility in us that is crucial to taking Pesach seriously. Rabbi Tarfon, you may remember, said (in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers) that you should not feel free to desist from jobs just because you know you will not be able to complete them. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Maybe someone else will come along and finish the work for you. And—this is the Pesach edition of that thought—maybe you’ll realize all along that the point of the doing wasn’t the finishing, but the doing itself. Maybe!

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