‘Hametz’ in the family

A metaphor to focus on other elements in our lives that should be removed before Pessah.

Seder table illustrative 521 (photo credit: Tim Bedison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Seder table illustrative 521
(photo credit: Tim Bedison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
The term hametz refers to specific grains that are fermented or leavened, as well as to any substance that can cause fermentation.
According to Jewish law and tradition, eating or owning hametz during Pessah is forbidden.
This concept can be used as a metaphor to focus on other elements in our lives that should be removed before Pessah.
During this period of strenuous preparation for the holiday, it is useful to pay attention to those aspects in our family relationships that may be seen as hametz. Since four is a significant number in the Seder (four questions, four cups of wine), let us address four areas of potential tension and conflict in our family relationships. We will then discuss ways to manage, minimize, or transform the unhealthy elements.
1. Conflicts between husband and wife
Removing crumbs from the bread box and discarding leftover kugel from the refrigerator is not enough when preparing for Pessah.
Take a careful look at your marital relationship and consider how it can become more meaningful, more mutually supportive.
Each day, plan a time when you will speak directly and honestly with your partner about what really matters to him or her. Try to respond more kindly when tensions erupt. Review how to offer and accept a sincere apology when one of you has allowed anger to flare or when your irritation has overcome your good intentions. Consider what you would say now if you were to renew your marriage vows. Write a new ketuba, together.
2. Alienation between generations: parents and their adolescent or adult children
“Get out of my house!” “Why won’t you speak to me?!” “You don’t know how to love me!” Have any of these hurtful phrases been directed at you by your mother or father? By your son or daughter? Have you ever spoken words like these to a person in your family? If your answer is yes, perhaps we can find better ways to understand and respond to these situations.
When conflicts erupt in a family, the anger and resentment can simmer for a long time. It takes strength and determination to open an old wound or to approach a person who has rejected you. During the weeks before Pessah, take stock of your feelings and try to consider new ways to understand the situation. Be mindful of the other person’s position and try to be more sympathetic to the differences that have come between you.
It is worthwhile to attempt to communicate with an estranged relative, even if he or she doesn’t respond positively to your efforts.
3. Hostility between siblings
The connection between siblings is one of the most enduring and vulnerable of all human relationships. Sisters and brothers can express great love, admiration and support for each other, as well as fierce competition and vicious hatred. The period leading up to Pessah offers an opportunity to review old animosities and begin to create new modes of relating.
If your siblings will be gathering for the holiday, you can use the occasion to recall shared memories and honor their accomplishments.
If animosities keep you apart, you can still work to remove some of the hametz from your attitude.
Take the time to think about the positive as well as the negative aspects of your family life.
Make a list of past grievances and accusations and place it in a sealed container. Sometime after the holiday, you may wish to review your list. Hopefully, you will come to some new conclusions about how each negative point could be transformed into a healthier, more constructive way of relating to your sister or brother. Perhaps by next year you will be in a stronger position to remove the hametz and heal a broken connection.
4. Anger and rejection Families with special situations such as divorce, second marriage, intermarriage or other choices may experience them as sources of conflict and estrangement.
An esteemed university professor, divorced, mother of five adult children, describes her frustration and misery when, for the third year in a row, all her children choose to celebrate the Seder with their father, leaving her alone.
A widower, recently married to a widow with several adult children, sadly relates how her son and daughters oppose her marriage to him and angrily refuse to come to their mother’s new home.
Families undergo a variety of upheavals.
Some are more disruptive and divisive than others. In the worst scenarios, conflicts persist from one generation to the next, and some family members carry grudges to the grave. If we can learn to accept differences in others and celebrate change in ourselves, we will be able to heal some of the most destructive elements in family life.
In addition to cleaning out the crumbs in our kitchen, we can prepare for Pessah by acknowledging our own biases, admitting mistakes, and asking for forgiveness.
Approaching Pessah with this attitude will illuminate our holiday with the blessings of love, reconciliation and shlom bayit, peace in the home. Let us hope that after the hametz returns to our cupboards, the spirit of the holiday will remain in our hearts and continue to nurture our connections with the most significant people in our lives, our family.
The writer is a psychologist, retired from the Psychiatry Department of the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Fragmented Families: Patterns of Estrangement and Reconciliation, winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award. She and her husband live in Providence, Rhode Island, and Jerusalem.