You thought Pessah was about the matza, but it's really an ongoing series of competitions.
By DEBI LERNER-RUBIN
Pessah in the Holy Land. Land of our mothers and fathers. Land of our history and of our promised (eventually) very bright future. Land of milk and honey. And of leavening.
In the Spring, there are really only two kinds of Jews - those who do and those who don't. Everyone has a seder. Well, almost everyone: More than in any other traditional Jewish activity, believers, semi-believers, believers of convenience and out-and-out non-believers participate in a Pessah Seder. The Seder requires great preparation regardless of one's level of observance. But, interestingly, even the most unobservant members of the tribe sometimes become obsessive about their preparations during this most amazing time.
Without doubt, stress is the key to Pessah - dramatic levels of stress. At some point, at least one person in every family has to turn into a raving lunatic to make sure the household is properly ready for this incredible holiday. Indeed, it's an undisputed fact that more certificates of insanity are distributed in the three weeks prior to the seder than at any other time. Well, they could very well be - at least in Israel. Why does this happen to such a nice group of argumentative people?
There are several unofficial national contests running during the pre-Pessah preparation period which officially begins the morning after Shushan Purim and ends when it all just sort of fizzles out during the week of Pessah itself. In all the contests, the law of opposites dominates. It's a lot like basic physics; each contest has its equal opposite.
There is the fashion contest: This is a pretty straightforward competition involving the most subjective and the most expensive criteria. Or, in some cases, the most objectively cheap garb/accessory/coiffure. Which contest would you choose?
Then there's the gift competition. Guests bring gifts to their hosts. Employers give to employees. Suck-ups bring to their boss/teacher/ whatever. The contest is over who gives the best (or worst), spends the most (or least), buys the fanciest brand or gets the best bargain.
Then there's the food. The matza competition involves price, type of grain, shape, how carefully guarded the grains were from the moment of sprouting through their unleavened life cycle, and by whom. It's a very complicated competition, this particular one. Then, there's the wine. Now that Israeli wines have earned kudos internationally and our local wine industry has blossomed, we have real competition among wines for the seder.
Without a doubt, the biggest and most grueling competition is the cleaning contest. It literally "takes the cake" (heaven forbid). There are even sub-contests in the cleaning contest. These are determined by how long you spend on a particular task; how fast you work; how much you spend on materials and which brands you choose - designer detergents, generic brands or the organic varieties.
Rabbis and sages are all emphatic on one point: This is not a question of "Spring Cleaning" they insist, as they instruct you to go over every inch, every centimeter, of every single one of your possessions and of your dwelling place, and to be certain - absolutely certain - that there is no hametz (leavened grain or leavened grain product) anywhere. I trust you can hear me yelling this part for emphasis.
This annihilation of hametz includes substances you would never dream of eating and about which you might have nightmares of being forced to eat. There's one remarkable definition from one rabbi: "Ask any desperate alcoholic" for a list of unexpected products that you must rid yourself of. This is a) because a desperate alcoholic is thought to be aware of every probable and improbable location where alcohol lurks - from mouthwash to perfume; and b) because all grain alcohol has its origins in [on Pessah] forbidden grains. Imagine combing the streets for a reliably desperate alcoholic to consult. It could drive a person to drink. I suggest that you don't actually do that since the same rabbi continued by advising calm.
On the one hand, we are told to "chill" - no stress, please. Just get your tools ready and in a few hours, you'll have the job done. The list of suggested tools runs as follows: A toothpick, an old toothbrush and cotton swabs. Doesn't that sound like a light cleaning session?
Will we ever be truly free? I propose that on the night of the seder we all go outside to lift our eyes heavenward and ask that question - knowing, as we gaze upon the stars, that they are the same stars that we saw in Egypt as slaves; that they are the same stars that shone over us for 40 years in the desert; that they are the same heavens that escorted us into the holy land with Joshua; that they have been with us as long as we have been. And, that we are all together under them.
With that, I wish you freedom!
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