Updated: Apr 5
As a child, mornings of the Seder night held my favorite moments of preparing for Pesach. As my mom completed any last-minute tasks, my dad, my siblings, and I would burn Chametz in the beautiful Jerusalem springtime.
Like so many others on the street, we would make our little fire and happily throw in all the old bits of bread and cookies. It was always fascinating to watch them char and then disappear in the fire. Often enough we would also add our Lulav, left over from Sukkot, and watch it be consumed in flames.
Why the Lulav? Do you have this custom in your home?
If you do not, I invite you to read on to find out how this small act can become a very satisfying way to enhance your understanding of what Pesach is all about. It is also a great way of transforming the burning of food into a much deeper act of leaving winter behind. To unpack it, we first need to understand something about burning Chametz, and secondly about what function the Lulav and the whole set of Arbah Minim / Four Species play in the ritual of Sukkot.
Chametz in this practice has come to symbolize our Yetzer Ha-Ra, that is, our bad inclination getting out of control. In the same way as yeast causes dough to rise, the Yetzer Ha-Ra causes our ego to balloon out of proportion. Pesach is a time to remember that being in true freedom is containing our ego, not being enslaved to it. We do not want to eliminate our ego, just bring it back to its true size. Another understanding speaks to the idea that the Chametz we burn is like leftover sacrificial meat. Meat remaining after the sacrifice could not be consumed, so it had to be burned on the altar. Here chametz isn’t a bad thing, but rather a once useful, even holy, thing that has arrived at the end of its time and must be ritually consumed.
The blessings of Rain and Dew
Now, for the Lulav, let us remember why we use the Four Species. The festival of Sukkot opens the rainy season in Eretz Israel. (Incidentally, Sukkot used to be the high point of the Autumn festivals now known as the High Holidays.) The Lulav (palm branch), Aravah (willow), Etrog (citrus fruit), and Haddas (myrtle) are central components in the ritual and prayer to bring down rain. Beneath the layers of symbolism built up in the past two millennia, the Four Species are rainmaking tools, probably like the rain sticks in other religious traditions.
So, why do we burn the Lulav, and in some cases the Aravah, with our Chametz? In both Ashkenazi and Mizrachi traditions, the most common answer is that whatever has been used for sacred work cannot be thrown away disrespectfully. Instead, we must find a respectful way to dispose of it--very much like the sacrificial meat--which is why either the Aravah or the Lulav is used to kindle the fires to burn Chametz, as well as to fire the ovens for baking Matzot.
But why now? Why at Pesach?
At Sukkot we prepare ourselves and begin praying for rain, but at Pesach we stop praying for rain and begin our prayers for dew. Pesach marks the opening of the dry season, when the fields need the warm sun to ripen the barley and wheat, and when every drop of rain might ruin the crop. By burning the Lulav and Aravah in the fire of Chametz (or of Matzah), we recognize what had been useful for us, but must now go and make way for the new thing. We are grateful for the plenty and blessings the winter rains brought into our lives, and we wait to welcome them back again when autumn returns.
But for now we say goodbye, and rejoice in the new fresh life arriving with the spring. Enjoy the freedom to walk around without winter coats, massive boots, or frostbite and the sight of trees and plants (and children and adults) blooming again.
This article was originally written for The Alberta Jewish News