The prohibition of hametz is unique – even to own a small amount is to transgress, and it is forbidden to all Jews to have any benefit from hametz that was Jewish-owned during Pesach. The Torah itself annuls all Jewish ownership of hametz on Pesach: the only halakhic meaning of a Jew keeping it in his possession is that he thereby transgresses the prohibition of not retaining it. This has given rise to many symbolic interpretations – hametz is the yetzer hara, for instance, which we must eliminate entirely to become true servants of God.
A side benefit of the requirements of cleaning out all one’s hametz is that one will inspect everything one owns. The care we take to maintain our possessions can become a kind of bondage, they may become ends for us rather than means. As Hillel says in Avot 2:7: “One who increases possessions increases worry”. Checking all the objects one owns to see if any hametz found its way into them can reset our relationship to them, if needed.
One way to see whether one is in bondage to one’s possessions is to examine one’s willingness to give of them. “True generosity”, Descartes wrote, “consists in knowing that nothing truly belongs to me but the freedom to dispose of it and a constant resolution to use that freedom well.” This suggests that we relate to our material possessions as to our soul – as a trust to be looked after and to be used appropriately, not as an object of absolute ownership to do with as we please. As we check our possessions, one by one, let’s look to see what kind of yetzer may have gotten into our relationship with them. As one of my favorite moral philosopher’s wrote: “we can give only what we possess and only on condition of not being possessed by what we own.”