There is a longstanding tradition in Jewish homes across the globe to clean before Passover.
Thousands of women, children and even men armed with rags (schmattes, to some), dustpans, vacuum cleaners and a spritz of Meyer’s all-natural soap in a bottle are cleaning between couch cushions, in air-conditioning vents, behind bookcases, and, in my house, inside every Jewish book.
It’s a huge labor of love (or disdain) in honor of the upcoming holiday of freedom, Pesach. Jews the world over are getting rid of chametz (anything leavened).
While my husband is in charge of cleaning the vents, the couch, the sefarim (Jewish books) and the car, he is assisted by our small army of minions, aka our children. I am busy detailing the kitchen and ridding it of chametz, and I can hear the grumblings of some of the kids:
- “We don’t even use these sefarim; why do we need to clean them?”
- “These books are so high on a shelf, there’s for sure no chametz in them!”
- “Mommy never lets us eat out of the kitchen anyway; why do we need clean theeeese?”
Valid as all their ever-subtle points are, I hope someday they will understand, as I do now, that they are missing the point.
What is the point of the rigorous cleaning done before Pesach to rid our home of every last vestige of chametz (and certainly not eating it for all eight days of the holiday)?
Even if you don’t do it for yourself, maybe your grandmother did it, or you know a Chabad rebbetzin busy with tinfoiling her counters and backsplash and changing over her entire kitchen to a chametz-free zone of intolerance.
As with most things we do in a Jewish way, the answer is twofold and steeped in the enchantment of symbolism.
All our mitzvot and customs have a body and a soul. The body is the basic, practical and sometimes dry-as-matzah reason for how we practice. The soul is the deep, mystical and symbolic reason for why we practice. It is the magic sauce of our endurance over the millennia.
Just before the people of Israel left Egypt, G‑d commanded them to sacrifice the paschal lamb and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs. G‑d then told them they should do this every year on the anniversary of the Exodus: “It shall be for you a remembrance. … Seven days you shall eat matzah, and on the first day you should remove all se’or (sourdough, a leavening agent) from your homes. Anyone who eats chametz (leaven) from the first day to the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel.”
This commandment to remove chametz and to eat unleavened matzah is mentioned three times in Exodus Chapter 12. So on a practical level, we are serious about Passover because it is a serious directive, a clear commandment from G-d: Get rid of chametz and eat matzah, the paschal lamb and bitter herbs.
For generations we have celebrated Passover. While we no longer sacrifice a lamb, the roasted bone on the seder plate stands in its stead.
That is all fine and good. Doing what we are told. Doing it for generations.
But as intriguing as it is to be part of a tradition long and persevering, it is not necessarily inspiring if you don’t know the why of it all. It certainly doesn’t inspire me to be as rigorous as my mother or her mother. Based on my children’s grumblings, it seems they are even less inspired.
I know I must give them a deeper meaning, so I dug further to understand this for myself.
“And you shall guard the matzot … that they do not become leavened” — if you read the word matzot/matzah without vowels, it can be read as mitzvot/mitzvah (commandments).
The Talmud reinterprets this to read, “You shall guard the mitzvot, that they do not become soured/leavened.” How does a mitzvah become leavened or soured?
Another quote is brought here from Rashi: “A mitzvah that comes to your hand, don’t delay it.” The Hebrew word for delay is tachametzena, which clearly has the same root word as chametz, the very thing we are eradicating from our homes before Pesach.
What are we really doing when we are so busy getting rid of chametz?
On the soul level, what we are eradicating from our lives before Passover is the waste that we cannot recycle — namely, wasted time. Dreams delayed. Procrastination. This is the point, and it is a big deal.
The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel as they are getting ready to leave Egypt is surprisingly not to hold the b’nai mitzvah gala affair or to give charity to your favorite Jewish cause. Nope.
The first direct mitzvah is to bless the new moon, known as Rosh Chodesh. What Rosh Chodesh represents is the Jewish value of time; we protect a fleeting moment as if it represents eternity.
Being on time. Valuing someone else’s time. But mostly using all our time in a purposeful way.
We all have limited time in this world, and the message G-d was giving us is not to allow our allotted time to slip through our fingers. You were slaves for 210 years when your time was not your own, but now, and forever, you are a free people, and your time is your own. Use it wisely.
It was Henry David Thoreau who said, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
On the eve of Passover, what we are hunting down and eliminating is our propensity to push things off, to procrastinate and to commit the worst offense: the mitzvah that “comes to your hand” and you push it away.
What is that referring to? When we are specifically called on to do a mitzvah, to fill a position of leadership or to lend a helping hand, and we demure. We make up excuses about not being ready or not being the right person, or it not being the right time.
The essence of watching the matzah/mitzvah is to jump on it right away, lest it rot. Lest you whittle away the opportunity.
Finally, what is most uplifting about ridding oneself of chametz and not being a slouch is where this process takes us: The seder. The very name means order and organization. It is the highlight of Passover.
After removing all our chametz, locking it away and even selling it, we begin the seder.
What is the crux of the seder? Passing down our traditions, l’dor vador. On the seder nights we are transmitting our truths for the future. This is how we mortals become timeless and essentially live on forever.
Our customs are passed down, and our children practice Judaism as we do, then they in turn pass it to their children. Looking back at the chain of Judaism might not be inspiring until you realize that you too can have a piece of eternity.
In conclusion, I accept that getting rid of chametz as an exercise in meticulous spring cleaning is a burden. But when we know the deeper meaning, it becomes an exercise in self-improvement, and that inspires me.
When we help another and do mitzvot with alacrity, we are chametz-free. We are now ready for the seder on Passover eve and the metaphorical seder of life. We are showing our families and our children that we are excited about our Judaism and are committed to G-d and His mitzvot.
As a result, I am hopeful that our children will integrate these messages and own their Judaism in a way that it gets passed on from generation to generation. Happy Passover.