Hebrew Hear-Say: Coming clean

Passover, when we celebrate our liberation by working like slaves

I'm coming out of the closet to write this column. My dirty secret? I have some filthy shelves in my cupboards that haven't been cleaned since last Pessah. It is that time of year, Passover, when we celebrate our liberation (herutenu) by working like slaves (kmo avadim) cleaning all sorts of places where we know no hametz lies but somehow don't believe that we are divinely sanctioned to skip over. There's a lot of cleaning done not for any religious requirement but for what they call lema'an haseder hatov, for the sake of good order. Or perhaps that should be for the sake of a good Seder night with a clean conscience (matzpun naki). It's the season of miracles - how we always end up ready, clean and tidy on the night. And a time of wonders: How is it that if you take all the books off a shelf, dust them down, return the ones you borrowed and give away the ones you no longer want, the remainder will not fit back into the bookcase? I understand there are all sorts of plausible explanations for the parting of the Red Sea (kri'at Yam Suf), but other than the "nature abhors a vacuum" theory, I can't quite figure out how books expand to fill the available space. In any case, it's a kriya (literally a "tear" - the one that rhymes with wear, although it can bring tears to the eyes). It's hard work. I know that you don't have to clean the bathroom tiles for Pessah, and there is some kind of rule about not worrying about something a dog wouldn't eat, but whoever thought of it had not met my mutt or had to cope with her shed hairs. As my mother once summed up in a ditty: "Cleaning the cupboards causes trouble and friction/But if it wasn't for Pessah, we'd all be Egyptian." Psychologist friends note the dramatic rise in stress and mental health-related problems among their patients at this time of year; doctors warn (only in Israel) of holiday-related injuries which include the revenge of the gefilte fish: terrible infections inflicted when tiny scales and bones pierce the skin of the person who's cleaning the dead flounder. This, of course, lends an entirely different connotation to the phrase holeh nikayon - literally "cleanliness sick" but used to refer to a cleanliness obsession. In fact, if cleanliness is next to godliness, then even most secular Israelis can sit down to a Seder feeling holy. One of those wonderful things about Pessah here is that almost every Jewish family celebrates it, and spring cleaning is simply referred to as Passover cleaning - nikayon Pessah. After all the cleaning frenzy, the Pessah holiday is the perfect time to "lenakot et harosh" - literally, clean the head: in other (English) words, to take a break and get away from it all. Perhaps, watch past episodes of Israel's first and still unrivaled satire: Nikui Rosh, head cleaning. The Knesset takes a Pessah recess. But before that, Knesset members usually "menakim et hashulhan" (clean the table) or get rid of all the work that has piled up. The image of our parliament, I have to admit, does not easily spring to mind when discussing cleanliness and order. Too often nowadays the phrase "political convictions" has nothing to do with ideology and far more with courting disaster. Nikayon kapayim (literally clean hands) and a career in politics do not, unfortunately, automatically go together. When one speaks of a politician "naki mikol revav" (with a spotless record) it is with equal amounts of incredulity and reverence. Too often, someone else is left to clean up the mess (lenakot et hashetah) after a predecessor really hashed things up and swept the problems under the carpet (metahat lashatiah). Perhaps that's why a new boss or chief is often referred to as a new broom (matateh hadash) and as they say "a new broom sweeps clean." This is particularly true in the IDF, where wondrous powers have been attributed to brooms. In those naive early days of the state when the country was under siege, there was a saying "be'ein rovim, afilu matateh yoreh" (when there are no guns, even a broom can shoot). And if that sounds far fetched, it's worth remembering the Davidka - the cannon-like object that made a lot of noise and helped scare off Jerusalem's enemies in the War of Independence. For all the country's faults and problems, our freedom and independence really are worth celebrating. Clean-up campaigns of the anti-corruption type, by the way, are known as biur hametz, which is a truly cultural reference reflecting the practice of burning leavened products before Pessah starts. By that time, you're meant to have "la'asot seder" - tidied up and put everything in order. At some point, you just have to stop and adopt the Israeli philosophy of "hakol yihiyeh beseder": everything will be OK. Wherever you might be for the Seder, may it pass pleasantly and peacefully. [email protected]