The Mishna in Masekhet Pesachim (10b) records a debate among the Tanna’im concerning the case of a person who neglected to perform bedikat chametz before the time on Erev Pesach when chametz becomes forbidden. Rabbi Yehuda rules that one should no longer perform the bedika, whereas the majority view among the Sages held that one should search for chametz at that point and then destroy any chametz he finds. Even if one neglected to search for chametz before the onset of Pesach, according to the majority view, he should search during Pesach. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yehuda stated his position out of concern that the person might discover chametz and then eat it, in violation of the Torah’s prohibition. The other Sages disagree, and maintain that there is no reason for such concern, for since the person specifically searches for chametz in order to destroy it, he would not mistakenly eat it.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Musar Ha-mishna, draws an intriguing connection between this debate and a debate between these same Tanna’im in Masekhet Sota (7a). The question surrounds the procedure followed in the case of a married woman suspected of infidelity, who would be brought to the Beit Ha-mikdash and given special waters to drink. If she survived, this would prove her innocence, and she and her husband could then resume their marital relationship. The Mishnayot in Masekhet Sota describe several measures that were taken to exhaust and intimidate the woman in the hope that, if she was guilty, she would confess and thereby be spared the deadly effects of the water. According to the majority view, these measures included exposing her hair and parts of her body, which would cause her embarrassment. Rabbi Yehuda disagreed, arguing that this could arouse inappropriate thoughts and desires among the kohen who performs this procedure. The likely reason why the majority view discounts this consideration, Rav Ginsburg suggests, is the fact that this entire process is being done for the sake of eliminating sexual impropriety. There is no reason to be concerned about the kohen experiencing illicit thoughts or desires while he is intensely focused upon the effort to confront the problem of illicit relationships among the nation. Just as the majority view feels no need to be concerned about a person eating during Pesach chametz which he finds while in the process of seeking to destroy chametz, it similarly allows the kohen to expose the sota’s hair and parts of her body while he is in the process of trying to eliminate the scourge of sexual impropriety. Rabbi Yehuda is similarly consistent, forbidding bedikat chametz once the chametz prohibition has set in, and forbidding exposing a kohen to potentially arousing sights even as he conducts the sota ritual.
Reflecting upon the broader concepts at play in this debate, there is certainly a degree of truth to both perspectives. Rabbi Yehuda is undoubtedly correct that we human beings are frail and inconsistent enough to stumble and succumb even while working to combat that precise form of wrongdoing. Even as we involve ourselves in the effort to oppose a certain negative phenomenon, exposure to that temptation could cause us to succumb. The other Sages, presumably, do not deny this possibility, only in their view, the small risk of failure does not justify withdrawing and abandoning the effort to eliminate “chametz” from our society. Although this effort will, invariably, expose us to the ills we seek to cure, the majority view maintains that this work is too important to neglect for the sake of avoiding all exposure to any forms of “chametz.”