|Hachodesh: Pesach Cleaning|
Our celebration of Rosh Chodesh marks the onset of spring in the Jewish tradition. The partying of Purim is now but a vague, crumb-filled memory. Passover is now inescapable and the dread we have of the cleaning and preparing and the affliction of the unrisen is nearly upon us.
In the ancient world, rabbis only gave sermons twice a year, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and on the last Shabbat before Passover (don’t worry – that’s not until next week). The sermon before Passover was among the most highly attended events in the Jewish community, as everyone wanted to know which brand of tuna to buy and whether or not apple juice required a special kosher for Passover certification (just kidding). In reality, everyone wanted a refresher course in this most significant of ritual observances, given that they did not have the Internet, or, in many cases, printed books, to which to refer.
Therein lies a tremendous challenge.
The Shulhan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law compiled by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the 16th century instructs:
“One needs to check all the places in which there is concern lest he has brought into them hametz. And therefore, all the rooms of the house and the lofts need checking; because sometimes a person enters them with his bread in his hand. But, wine cellars from which one would not go get wine in the middle of a meal, and likewise a shed or similar places, they do not need checking. (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 433:3) This implies that the removal of hametz, or leavening, from our homes, is a very directed task. We need only take care to clean those places which may have been “contaminated,” if you will. That’s not the same thing as the frenzied spring cleaning we are drawn to perform when it comes time to prepare for Passover. You may have seen the cartoon of the seder table, with the wife hanging from the chandelier, pointing to herself claiming, “This is the bride of affliction” (no gender insensitivity intended!) To enter the Passover holiday exhausted and resentful diminishes the transformative power of the holiday itself.
By contrast, the Zohar, classic text of ancient kabbalistic study, tells us:
“’AND THE PEOPLE TOOK THEIR DOUGH BEFORE IT WAS LEAVENED.’ (Exodus 12:34)…Leaven and unleaven symbolize the evil and the good inclinations in man.” (Zohar, Raya Mehemna 40b) Here, leaven is redefined to describe the puffed-up nature of our souls, the ways in which we become too big for our britches or take ourselves far more seriously than God ever intended. In this model, cleaning for Passover takes on new meaning, as we probe our souls for the hidden fragments which prevent us from feeling – and being – pure, whole and complete.
It’s a critical moment, to cleanse our spirits. In tandem with our detailed and precise cleaning of our homes, it yields an incomparable preparation. Not simply for the seder, but for a little-noted moment of the second seder night as we begin to count the Omer. Literally, omer is a sheaf of barley and we count the amassing of those sheaves with great trepidation, whether we fear our harvest may fail, or more significantly, as we count forward with anticipation to the conclusion of that marking of time, culminating in the receiving of the Torah. To be freed up of our physical and spiritual hametz and all they represent is to enable ourselves to be fitting and honorable recipients of the gift of the Law. To release the shackles of expectation frees us up to receive God’s Torah with a fullness of heart and a depth of purpose, partnering with God to fulfill a messianic vision.
To be unencumbered by the excesses that our lives seem to yield, no matter how valiantly we fight against them, enables us to hear the melody of our children’s voices, inhale the scent of flowers in the air and feel the kiss of the wind against our skin. All these, and so much more, get lost in the whirlwind demands of day-to-day living.
I’m a traditionalist. I’ll be brushing crumbs out of the pages of books, vacuuming my car, scraping every last burnt fragment off the cooktop. These, for me, are elevating tasks. But if I’m lucky, if I’m really lucky, when those labors of love are complete, I will have made space within me which can be readily filled with the joy and love of the gifts that God has given me.