David Cohen had just stepped out of his armored Mercedes when he felt the barrel of a pistol shoved up against his temple. “Give me the keys to your car, and don’t try anything funny!”

David had been over this scenario with his insurance agents dozens of times, and knew not to attempt any conversation. His attacker was probably high on something, and talking would only exacerbate the situation. The gunman took his keys, got in the car and peeled away, leaving David panicked at the side of the road.

He ran into the closest store, shouting frantically for people to help him.  As is the custom in Mexico City, everybody ignored him. You never know who’s behind a crime in Mexico, and you’re much better off not getting involved. David took out his cell phone, and with a trembling hand dialed his insurance company.

Heavily armed agents arrived a few minutes later and began processing the attack with remarkable professionalism. They told him repeatedly how lucky he was that all the attacker took was his car. He could have just as easily been kidnapped. In a daze, he gave them all the information, went through all the paperwork, and answered all the questions. It wasn’t until he got home when suddenly everything hit him. His knees buckled, and he broke down crying on the floor, shaking uncontrollably.

That’s when David decided to move his family out of Mexico, this time for good. They had once tried moving to San Diego, but returned two years later. Life in America just couldn’t compare to life in Mexico. In Mexico they lived like kings. No one ever cleaned a dish, took out the garbage, did a load of laundry, shined a shoe, or wiped down a tabletop. They had a staff of maids, drivers, and assistants.

But David now knew they were finished with Mexico City.  He called up his father, the patriarch of the family, to tell him of the decision. His father had built the family’s industrial empire and was a family man to the core. Any decision to leave had to be discussed with him first.

David began the discussion by mentioning the monkeys of the Selva Laconoda jungle.

When David was a boy, his father toured the jungles in the Mexican state of Chiappas and saw something remarkable. The Native Americans in the jungle considered monkey meat to be a delicacy, but had trouble catching the wily animals that would swiftly sling through the jungle. They devised an ingenious trapping method. They would leave candy in a particular spot in the jungle. The wary monkeys would only approach the candy while no people were around. Every time the natives left candy out, it was gone by the morning.

Then they began leaving the candy inside carved out coconut shells that were chained to the nearby trees. Finally, the natives made the holes in the coconuts smaller, just big enough for a monkey to put in an empty hand, but too small to remove a closed hand grasping a fat candy. The monkeys took the bait and couldn’t get their hands out with the candy. They had to either let go of the candy or remain stuck to a coconut chained to a tree.

“Dad, it’s time for us to let go of the candy. It’s time for us to leave Mexico.”

The monkeys always held on to the candy. The native hunters would find them shrieking wildly, afraid of the hunters but unwilling to let go of the candy and free themselves.

“Dad, it’s time for us to let go of the candy,” David said over the phone. “It’s time for us to leave Mexico.” Yes, they would have to give up many luxuries, but they would no longer have to drive in armored cars with armed bodyguards. They would no longer have to to learn new passwords to describe how their captors were treating them.  It was time for the family to experience real freedom.

They would no longer live with the comfort of royalty, but they would now be able to live with the joy and exhilaration of liberation.

Passover: Out of the Jungle

We are now cleaning for Passover, removing all the chametz, the leavened bread, making our homes chametz-free. What is so bad about chametz that we have to remove every last bit of it?

We find a very interesting prayer in the Talmud:

After the Amidah (Shemoneh Esrei) Rabbi Alexandri would say, 'Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, but what holds us back? The yeast in the dough and our subjugation to foreign regimes. May it be Your will that You save us from their hands, so that we return to serve You with a complete heart” (Berachot 17A).

Rabbi Alexandri likens the Evil Inclination, our negative urges, to the yeast in the dough, the chametz. Watching dough rise helps us understand why. It doesn’t rise quickly; rather it grows so slowly that the growth is almost imperceptible. This may be the source for the famous phrase, “A watched dough never rises.” But if you leave it, ignore it, and come back a few hours later, you’ll find that the little bowl of dough has tripled in size.

This is the modus operandi of our Yetzer Hara, our negative pole. It doesn’t try to get us to suddenly do something terrible, rather it starts off with little insidious thoughts that, when left alone, grow bigger until the problem suddenly becomes an uncontrollable monster.

Our negative inclination first convinces us to let our spouse put the children to bed – after all, we’ve worked hard and need some time to ourselves! Then he convinces us to ignore the dishes – someone else will get to them. Soon he tells us we need to stay late at the office – there is simply so much to get done! Not long after we start missing Little League games and piano recitals – we’d love to be there, but other things are simply more important. Before we know it, he can whittle us down to becoming the absentee parent we always promised ourselves we would never be.

Everything about matzah must be done with alacrity, attentiveness, and constant care.

This is how the natives catch the monkeys. It starts off with a little candy, then a little coconut, then a small chain securing the chain to the tress, and before they know it, the coconut closes in on them and they are trapped.

The matzah way is the exact opposite. We must be diligent with matzah and carefully watch them to maintain their leaven-free status. As the Torah says “You shall watch the matzot” (Exodus 12:17). Everything about matzah must be done with alacrity, attentiveness, and constant care. We must make sure not even a drop of leaven gets in, because once it does, it will begin to slowly ferment, changing the entire nature of the dough.

As we re-invent ourselves on Passover, attempting to break out of whatever shackles us, we need to follow the matzah path of diligence and attention to detail, and never allow any chametz to infiltrate where it can slowly ferment from within. We need to let go of the candy and grab the real freedom. Only then can we live like true kings.