By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’m beginning to clean my house for Pesach, as I have done every year since becoming more observant. I will eventually be changing over the dishes to the Pesach ones, covering my counters and more. Although I know I need to do this, I’m having trouble getting anything spiritual out of all this cleaning. Could you give me something to focus on that might help?
— Sonya L.
To tell the truth, I think what’s bothering you bothers most women and their “male helpers” as well when going through the drudgery of Pesach cleaning. Jews traditionally bless each other this time of year are to have a Purim sameach (a joyous Purim, last week) and a Pesach kasher (a kosher Pesach). One Chassidic rebbe used to wish people a kosher Purim (it’s easy for Purim to be joyous, harder to make it proper and kosher) and a Pesach sameach (it’s often tough to bring Pesach in with joy with all the hard work getting there).
If we take a fresh look at the preparation for Pesach in the context of understanding what a Jewish holiday is all about, we will be able to adopt a new and redeeming perspective on Pesach cleaning.
The concept of a yom tov (holiday) in Judaism is quite different from that of the outside world. In the world at large, time is a continuum that moves in a straight line. We mark off times to represent days and dates, but those dates have no relation to the same date a year ago or many years ago. When one celebrates July 4, it is an important remembrance for events that took place more than 200 years ago. Those events, however, happened only then, and now we celebrate them on their anniversaries.
In Judaism, however, as explained by the Talmud and the Kabbalists, time is not a continuum; rather it is a cycle. Every date takes us back to the spiritual source of that date. If God chose a particular date to reveal the divine presence and the great light of the Shechinah onto the world, that light is still shining just as brightly when we return to that date of the year-cycle as it did the day He performed the miracles of revelation.
Those who have elevated themselves to higher spiritual levels clearly see and experience that light. But for most of us, that light is shining in a hidden way; that hidden illumination is the source of the holiness of the holiday.
This leads us to a very different outlook upon our holidays. A Jewish holiday is not only something you do, rather it’s a world that you enter. For example, to relive the feelings of love and Heavenly protection in the desert, we need to actually leave our homes and enter a different physical realm and mind-space and live in a sukkah for seven days. We don’t just observe Sukkot; we enter the world of Sukkot.
On Shavuot night, which comes seven weeks after Pesach, there is a custom observed worldwide for Jews to stay up all night studying Torah. Through this total immersion in Torah, we leave our worlds and enter the space of Sinai.
With Pesach as well, we are not enjoined only to observe Pesach but to transcend our world and enter into the world of Pesach. This is implicit in the statement of the Haggadah that every year, every Jew should see themselves as if they themselves are leaving Egypt. That’s only possible if you leave your familiar surroundings and enter a new world, the world of Pesach.
This is the deeper reason we need to clean our homes of the familiar foods, even sell them to a non-Jew through the rabbi, cover our counters and put out special tablecloths and dishes. We are no longer in our familiar homes but have left those homes behind for our new homes — our Pesach homes. In the new home we are empowered to enter a new mind space, the world of Pesach. With every cabinet you clean and every shmata you use up, you’re one step closer to entering the world of redemption.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.