March 25, 2004
More than 3,300 years ago, God swept us out from our slavery in Egypt, where we had toiled for more than 400 years. He did not wait for a United Nations resolution on the matter -- the Almighty acted unilaterally, and for this we are forever grateful. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is central to our lives as Jews -- so central, in fact, that we mention it in the "Shema" every single day, as well as in the "Kiddush" on Friday night.
And yet there's something very ironic about Pesach. Why is it that getting ready to celebrate our liberation from slavery involves so much hard work? First, we need to remember that during Pesach we are not allowed to eat, own or even benefit from the type of leavened products, or chametz, that we normally enjoy all year round: bread, crackers, pasta and even wheat germ. Who enjoys wheat germ, you ask? Well, I do. It's in my favorite shampoo, so during Pesach the bottle gets booted into the garage with all the other verboten chametz.
The haggadah is our Passover playbook, which tells us that God took us out of Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." These are useful images to keep in mind, because when you are preparing for Pesach you're going to need both a mighty hand (two would be better) and an outstretched arm to get to those hard-to-reach crevices behind the couch where your kid stashed a packet of Oreos a few months back.
While cleaning for this Festival of Freedom, many of us will scrub our homes to within an inch of our lives, finally sitting down to the seder tired, yes, but serene in the knowledge that our homes are not only sparkling clean, but, more importantly, kosher for Pesach. Yet many women (who generally do the bulk of the Pesach cleaning) can get carried away with it all. In their zeal to create a kosher-for-Pesach home, they run themselves ragged and may be so exhausted by seder night they can barely stay awake past the soup. Frankly, women like this make me nervous. I'm just not willing to begin Pesach cleaning the day after Purim (besides, we need another week to finish the shalach manot) but I also don't want to feel behind in the Pesach-cleaning Olympiad. I take comfort from the assurances I have received from several esteemed Orthodox rabbis who wish that the women would calm down about this. They say that one should be able to clean a home for Pesach (not including the kitchen) in just a day or two. If you insist on cleaning the ceiling, they say, it doesn't make the home any more kosher, and if the cost to the woman and her family is needless stress, it's surely not worth it.
In a way, our ancestors were lucky. When Moses gave them the green light to escape from their Egyptian taskmasters, there was no time to say, "Wait! I didn't finish sweeping the floor yet! And the pots and pans still need to be put away!"
When Pharaoh finally agreed to let our people go, we had to skedaddle. Little could we guess that we wouldn't enter the Promised Land for another 40 years.
So why can't we just commemorate our liberation with some traditional Jewish comfort food, like chicken chow mein? Why does scrubbing down the house and eating hard, crummy matzah, which tastes stale even when it's fresh, remind us of freedom?
The answer, I believe, is that freedom is not just a physical reality -- it's a spiritual condition. And without a structure to our lives, there's no freedom; there's only chaos. It's kind of like how gravity works: without gravity, every thing and every one of us would just float up into the atmosphere, hither and thither. Similarly, our value system is our "spiritual gravity" -- it's the structure that keeps us grounded morally. It gives us enough space to grow, but not so much space that we'll just float around aimlessly, experimenting with potentially disastrous lifestyle ideas. It's no coincidence that God gave us the Torah -- His blueprint for living -- after our liberation from slavery. As slaves, we weren't free to make choices for ourselves. But as a newly liberated people, we needed guidelines. And who better to give them than the Creator Himself?
Similarly, the chametz that we search for before Pesach isn't just physical. Our sages teach that the chametz is a metaphor for the "leavening" in our own personalities -- the arrogance and egotism that can puff us up higher than a loaf of freshly baked bread. That's why preparing for Pesach means more than looking for an old candy bar left in a jacket pocket. It means spring-cleaning our souls, trying to rid ourselves of pettiness, selfishness and tunnel vision. We're multitasking -- vacuuming with one hand, but also taking an inventory of our character, and trying to refocus on the things that really matter: our families, our values, God and the Torah He gave us to help us live a meaningful life. Only when we have swept this spiritual chametz away can we really connect with the deeper meaning of Pesach.
If we can manage to take this spiritual inventory, then when we sit down to our seders, we will be free -- truly free -- to enjoy this pivotal rendezvous with God, just as our ancestors have done for more than 3,300 years. We will be celebrating not just our liberation from slavery, but our reconnection to the tradition that has ensured our miraculous survival as a people.
Who knows? Perhaps any people able to digest this much matzah must surely be an indestructible people indeed.
Judy Gruen writes the popular "Off My Noodle" humor column, available on her Web site, www.judygruen.com. She is also a columnist for Religion News Service.