Searching for Chametz
The unique energy of Pesach is freedom. As we say in the prayers, Pesach is zman cheroteinu (the time of our freedom). Our national freedom, though, is not the entire picture. On Pesach night the halacha demands that every individual views himself as though he personally left Mitzrayim. Even though we are no longer physically enslaved, we all have areas in which we need to improve, and we are all enslaved to our own yetzer hara (an inner degree of inclination to transgress). Pesach, being zman cheruteinu, is the auspicious time to overcome our spiritual weaknesses and leave the bondage of our inner Mitzrayim (Michtav M’Eliyahu II p. 17). This is one way we can literally fulfill the requirement to see ourselves as though we left Mitzrayim.
Based on this theme, the commentaries mention that chametz symbolically represents the yezer hara. The puffed-up chametz, in relation to the flat matzah, represents the yetzer hara’s tools to make us sin. Some say it represents pride, how one raises himself in his, and in others’, eyes, and produces a lack of will to work on one’s self, thinking that he is already perfect. Others mention that the gradual rise of chametz represents the yetzer hara’s gradual tightening hold on a person, from merely overindulging in what is allowed to eventually fulfilling heinous sins (see Maharsha on Berachot 17a).
The commentaries explain that the mitzvah of searching for chametz also symbolically hints at the search for the yetzer hara within. The halacha says: In the beginning of the night of the fourteenth one has to search for chametz with candlelight in the holes and cracks of every place into which he brought chametz. In light of the ideas above, let’s analyze this halacha through the eyes of the commentaries of the Alshich, the Shlah and the Chida.
In the beginning of the night of the fourteenth — The night of the fourteenth refers to the fourteenth year of a person’s life, i.e. right after his bar mitzvah. The Gemara says that it is only then that the yetzer tov (inner drive to do what is good) is put inside the person (Nedarim 32b). It is at this time that the main battle with the yetzer hara begins.
Search for chametz — Therefore, immediately upon receiving his yetzer tov one should begin to search his heart for any chametz (yetzer hara) and dispose of it. Hence, the halacha writes “beginning of the night,” as one should not wait until he is older. However, if he did not do so immediately, he should still rid himself of it when he is older, as the halacha says: If he did not search on the night of fourteenth, he should search in the day;… if he did not search during the day, he should search on Pesach; if he did not search on Pesach then he should search after Pesach. It is never too late to work on oneself and change for the better.
Holes and cracks — One has to search every corner of his heart for chametz. Since any trace of chametz is forbidden to own and eat, no place suspected of bearing chametz can go unchecked. The halachot pertaining to chametz are unique in that they require us to search, destroy, and nullify the chametz from one’s heart. Furthermore, unlike other forbidden foods, there is no concept of nullifying chametz on Pesach. One reason for this is that we don’t give the yetzer hara any room to exist, no matter how small it may be (Teshuvot Radbaz III 546). This is especially so because this is exactly how the yetzer hara entices a person to initially commit a small sin, which leads to indulging in the most severe transgressions (see Shabbat 105b).
Through candlelight — The Chida explains that candlelight represents Torah, as it says “Ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr” (the candle is the mitzvah and Torah is light). One should search his ways through the light of the Torah to see whether his actions are in line with what
Every place into which he brought chametz — The Alshich explains that these places represent the areas that where one struggles with most in his battle with the yetzer hara. There are many body parts a person can sin with. The eyes can see inappropriate things, the ears can listen to lashon hara, the mouth can eat non-kosher food, the feet can run to do bad, etc. However, not every person sins with all of his body parts. Therefore, the halacha tells us that we are required to search out only the parts in which we brought in chametz, i.e. the body parts that don’t have a clean track record. The places where one is not prone to sin do not have to be searched, as the Mishna says: Any place that one did not bring chametz into doesn’t need to be searched.
The Shlah HaKadosh explains that the halachot regarding the different places one must check for chametz also hint at the different areas in one’s life that need to be cleansed of the yetzer hara. For example, the halacha states: When there is a hole (in a wall) between a Jew and his friend, each one of them searches up to where his hand reaches, and then he nullifies the rest in his heart. Just like we are required to search for chametz in a shared wall between our neighbors, we are also required to search and get rid of any animosity or jealousy there may be between us and our friends. The halacha also says to search one’s pockets for chametz, which hints at the idea of checking one’s business dealings to ensure all money that enters one’s pockets was earned according to the halachot of the Torah. The halacha further requires the searching of a Beit Knesset (place of prayer) and a Beit Midrash (place for learning Torah) for chametz. This represents the requirement to check one’s commitment to the halachot of praying and learning Torah.
Finally, even after one gets rid of all his chametz in his vicinity, it is still not enough, as the verse says: And leaven may not be seen in your possession, in all your borders. The Alshich explains that this halacha hints at the idea of also helping others get rid of their yetzer hara. Since all Jews are responsible for each other’s spiritual wellbeing, one should do his best to help people within his borders get rid of their inner chametz as well.
Just like the physical preparation for Pesach requires planning, the spiritual preparation demands foresight. Through proper introspection we can enter Pesach spiritually prepared for growth. By keeping the above ideas in mind we can more effectively utilize the special energy of this time, and dispose of our inner chametz. May we all merit making the most of this time.