Think Again: Random thoughts on the joys of Passover cleaning

There is an intrinsic relationship between seder and freedom, and therefore it is appropriate that the night celebrating our redemption from slavery should be called leil haseder.

A woman cleans her home 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
A woman cleans her home 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Everyone complains about Passover cleaning, especially the women whose cleaning campaigns often start before Purim. But my guess is that if the rabbis could free us from Passover cleaning that most of us would carry on pretty much as today. My proof? The rabbis have, in fact, declared most of what passes for Passover cleaning today to be unnecessary. To no avail. We – but especially the women – treat hametz not as particles but as if it were a germ that can infect the house even when invisible.
Rebbetzin Avigayil Ravitz, the widow of the long-time Knesset member Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, once confided to me that all her married children return home during the weeks leading up to Passover to participate in the cleaning, moved by nostalgia for the days when the whole family worked together, as much as by the duty of helping their mother.
The Rosenblums have not quite reached that stage. There are still three healthy young men in the house to replace their predecessors in moving all the furniture and heavy appliances, as well as laboring over the oven and refrigerator.
Meanwhile the married children have no one besides their spouses to help, with young, hametz-bearing children underfoot. They are more likely to send for reinforcements than to drop by. If they do, it is generally only to scoff at the yeridat hadorot (decline of the generations) and to point out that in their day every book, at least in the living room, had to be held upside down and opened and closed several times.
I’m still good for one denim-clad foray behind the refrigerator to remove the encrustation of a year, and no family member would think of touching my study, whose floor is adorned by multiple piles of documents. But I note with a mixture of relief and dismay that my sons no longer consider me a candidate for the heavy cleaning. I’m not quite sure what happens when the current corps start their own homes. No obvious replacements appear on the horizon, with our oldest grandson only eight.
Actually one married son did chip in. The only Rosenblum male blessed with patience and an ability to focus on small details, he spent over two days rearranging the sefarim spread over four rooms and a basement in order to rid the living room of a breakfront of sentimental value only to my wife and me, who purchased it in our first year of marriage at Scandinavian Design before we knew that my next decade would be spent in kollel not the practice of law. In its bowels were discovered hundreds of family photos of indeterminate vintage (which my son thereupon undertook to organize), an equal number of unplayable cassettes, as well as the sefarim for which bookshelf space had to be found.
In the process, I discovered dozens of interesting volumes I didn’t even know we owned, surely an apt metaphor for how we too often overlook or undervalue the treasures closest to home. I generally return from every speaking tour abroad with eight or nine new items for columns from conversations with people I meet. And I would consider it a personal failure if I sat next to someone on a transatlantic flight and could not extract a column from the conversation.
Yet I have no reason to think that the strangers I meet abroad are any more intrinsically interesting than the neighbors with whom I pray and see every day. The only difference is that when I travel, the change of scenery makes me more alert to every new person I meet. That same attentiveness, however, would be better invested on those nearest and dearest.
MANY HAVE the custom of embarking on long-delayed house improvement projects immediately before Passover. What better time to paint the apartment than when it is already topsy- turvy? My own project this year was to open and file about a half year of bills and the like.
In my youth, I was amused when a former mayor of Chicago defended his failure to file taxes for five years on the grounds that he did not have time. But that defense strikes me as more compelling by the year. I have a tremendous aversion to opening anything addressed to me in Hebrew. That can be an expensive habit, however. Did you know that parking tickets and fees for Highway 6 have a way of doubling if left unattended? Allowing your supplemental health insurance to lapse because you canceled the wrong bank order and then proceeded to ignore a string of warnings can be even more pricey.
And I can assure anyone tempted to follow in my footsteps that your wife will not be amused if the ATM stops dispensing cash one day because the National Insurance Institute has frozen your bank account.
SEDER (ORDER) is a quality much prized by the ba’alei mussar. A visitor once entered the Talmud Torah of Kelm and heard the Alter of Kelm delivering what he assumed must be a eulogy from the Alter’s impassioned tone. Only after a very long time, did the visitor realize that the subject of so much feeling was a pair of boots not placed together in the cloakroom.
There is an intrinsic relationship between seder and freedom, and therefore it is appropriate that the night celebrating our redemption from slavery should be called leil haseder.
Photographs of the chaotic offices of brilliant professors are a staple of university magazines, but it is order that bespeaks a person who plans his life and in advance. A Midrash relates that when Pharaoh saw the way that the Israelites left Egypt systematically arranged by tribes, he realized that they were no longer a group of lowly slaves, reacting to their master’s voice, but people of stature. It was then he regretted his decision to let them go.
The older I get the more I appreciate the value of order, even if I have made little headway in attaining it. The preparations for Passover – the neat closets, the bills finally opened and filed, the hundreds of pages of print outs neatly arranged into binders for future articles – offer at least the hope of establishing greater order in the year to come.
PASSOVER CLEANING is also tied to another great theme of the holiday: renewal. The Torah refers to the celebration of our birth as a nation as the “holiday of spring,” the time of nature’s rebirth. The first mitzva given to the Jewish people prior to our going out from Egypt was the blessing of the new moon. The lunar cycle of waxing and waning symbolizes the continual renewal of self that must be part of every Jew’s life.
And what is the key to that renewal? Becoming aware of our spiritual aspects and gaining control over our physical, animal desires. The search for hametz in our homes mirrors the search for hametz in our hearts. We tell Hakadosh Baruch Hu: We seek to do Your will, but the se’or shebe’isa – literally the leavening in the dough; figuratively our physical, material side – gets in the way.” At that moment, at least, we feel ourselves capable of rooting out the hametz within.
A rabbi in Los Angeles with whom I’m friendly once shared his sadness about a father who brought his son to the rabbi’s house to sell his hametz. The boy expressed wonderment at the way everything in the rabbi’s house was turned upside down, and asked his father what was going on. His family spent every Passover at a hotel, and the boy had never seen, much less participated in, Passover cleaning. He totally lacked one of the crucial associations with Passover that links generations to one another: the overturning of the house in search of the last elusive crumb.
That boy, my friend lamented, cannot possibly connect to the idea that Passover cleaning parallels an inner process of removing the se’or shebe’isa, for he has never experienced Passover cleaning. Literally the hametz within and our attachment to physicality; physicality that holds us back in our performance of Hashem’s commandments. His experience of Passover has nothing to do with destroying the hametz either within or without.
When we gather in our homes around the festively decorated Passover table, with the special dishes taken down just one week a year, and contemplate the freshly scrubbed homes over which we have labored so diligently, we link ourselves to all the generations of our ancestors.
We may no longer exchange our old dirt floor for a new one every year at Passover time, as they did. But if those ancestors could return to observe our preparations for Passover, they would recognize their descendants and feel comfortable joining us for Seder. It more doubtful they would recognize us gathered around a hotel buffet table – even if we were wearing a shtreimel and bekeshe. ■
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.