"Rabbi, you look like a doctor!"

Last night I led a communal 2nd night seder for our congregation.  At the seder, one of the participants remarked, “Rabbi, you look like a doctor.”  This was because I was wearing a kittle, or a white robe-like garment which is traditionally worn at weddings (by the groom), on Yom Kippur, and at the Pesach seder, and symbolizes the tachritim, or burial shrouds.  It is uncommon for women to wear a kittle, but this has never stopped me before.  I wore a kittle over my wedding gown under the huppah (it had to be altered with slits on either side to fit over the large bell skirt) and have since worn one on Yom Kippur each year.

The similarities between Yom Kippur, the wedding day, and the death bed may seem difficult to discern at first, however there is one liturgical similarity in Jewish tradition.  On all of these occasions each person recites the vidui (the confessional) and is forgiven of sins and given a blank slate by God.  All of these occasions are new beginnings marked by purity.  Yom Kippur is the beginning of a pure new year, the wedding day is the pure beginning of a new stage in life, and death marks the purity of forgiveness achieved in the afterlife and the beginning of a new level of closeness to God.   But what does this all have to do with Pesach?

It is a custom in many Ashkenazi communities that all married men wear a kittle at the Passover seder.   Our sages have given dozens of interpretations for the reasoning behind this custom.  I am not sure if any of them have to do with new beginnings, but ridding our homes of hametz (leaven) and the process of kashering our kitchens for Pesach has always struck me as a powerful experience of purging ourselves from the past and entering a pure new beginning.   It just wouldn't be Pesach for me without the clean feeling I get when I pour boiling water over the counters and the sink to kasher them for the holiday (see the photo taken by my daughter Eden from this year’s koshering).

When I opened the topic for discussion at our seder last night, a number of people offered interpretations.  One member of the congregation remarked that Pesach is the symbol of the birth of the Israelite nation and the new beginning we enjoyed as we exited Egypt by the hand of God.   My 11 year old daughter Hadassah brought me much nachas as she contributed to the discussion by reminding us that in the Torah the month of Nissan (the month in which Pesach falls) is the first month of the months of the year. 

The Hassidic master, the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) brings a source that is not related to the kittle at all, but which is very clearly related to the concept of purity.   He cites an allegory in the Zohar about chametz and matzah.  The Zohar teaches of a king who had a sick child.  He rid the house of all foods except those that were medically approved.  After his child was healed, he then allowed him to have regular foods once again. 

In this allegory, the king symbolizes God, and the child is b’nai Yisrael when leaving Egypt.  The healing food is the matzah, and the regular food is chametz.   At the time of the Exodus we were tainted from the impurity of Egypt and therefore could only eat matzah, which is a symbol of purity.  Why is matzah similar to purity?  The Sefat Emet compares matzah to the state in the Garden of Eden before we sinned.  At that time it was very clear what was good and what was evil.  But after the sin, everything was mixed up and good and evil were no longer so separate.   He teaches that matzah is a simple food and does not change.  Chametz on the other hand, changes when it ferments and is therefore a symbol of the complicated existence we began in the Garden after the sin.   Each year at Pesach, we begin in a tainted state, perhaps even an unhealthy state like the child in the allegory.  Through the simplicity of matzah and the purity associated with a division between good and evil, we are healed and able to confront the complexities of the world.

The Sefat Emet notes the irony that the very chametz we are forbidden to eat we are then commanded to eat once we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai.   This is because only after returning to the simplicity and purity of the state of the Garden before the sin are we able to encounter and deal with the complexities of the world symbolized by chametz and the world after the sin.  The eating of the matzah then becomes a symbol of healing.  Perhaps the member of our congregation who remarked that I looked like a doctor wasn't so far off after all.  


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