Yesterday, we noted the Mishna’s discussion in Masekhet Pesachim (31b) concerning the case of chametz in a person’s property that is situated under a pile of debris (“chametz she-nafal alav mapolet”). The Mishna rules that one does not have to retrieve and then eliminate this chametz before Pesach, because it is already considered destroyed, having been buried by a layer of debris. However, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel imposes a significant condition on this halakha, requiring that the debris covering the chametz is at least three tefachim (handbreaths) thick. Otherwise, one must retrieve the chametz and destroy it before Pesach. Rabban Shimon formulates this halakha by saying that it applies “if a dog is unable to search there.” Meaning, if the chametz is buried so deep that dogs would not search through the rubble for food, then it is considered destroyed. The Gemara clarifies that this refers to a depth of three tefachim or more.
Chametz is commonly viewed as a symbol of the yetzer ha-ra, of our negative instincts, drives and tendencies that we must work to eliminate from our beings. The process of bedikat chametz, of searching throughout our homes for chametz before Pesach to ensure that no chametz is present, is thus seen as symbolic of the process of thorough introspection that is required to overcome our faults. We are often unaware of our failings and shortcomings, and we therefore need to thoroughly, carefully and honestly search through ourselves to find and identify our flaws so that we can then work to eliminate them and grow.
If so, then the Mishna’s discussion of a case of chametz buried underneath debris symbolizes the flaws that are buried deep within the surface. We all have negative tendencies that do not appear to have any effect upon our conduct, that we generally succeed in restraining and holding at bay. The Mishna warns, however, that such faults are considered “destroyed” and irrelevant only if they truly can never be “accessed,” if they lie so far beneath the surface that no set of circumstances could ever trigger them. Even if a person seems to have seized full control over his temper, for example, a situation of stress or provocation might awaken his latent disposition to anger, and cause him to erupt. The fact that we are able to keep our negative tendencies in check under normal circumstances does not necessarily mean that a “dog,” some extraordinary situation, cannot come along and bring them to the surface. The Mishna’s discussion thus perhaps alerts us to the need to study our characters and instincts honestly, and see whether our negative traits which we think we have already “buried” can truly be regarded as destroyed, or if perhaps we still have work to do to grow and perfect ourselves and ensure the absence of “chametz” even deep below the surface of our beings.