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Cleaning for Pesach with Joy

So I’ve been cleaning for Pesach here in the shul, and let me tell you there is a lot of crazy stuff that’s left around here.

I started in the fridge room to throw away all the accumulated food that’s expired that’s been sitting in our fridge. While there, I found a bottle of ‘Baltimore’s enthusiasm for their baseball team’. Apparently, it expires after three games… Get a grip, Baltimore!

Then I made it to the book room over there, you may have noticed these tremendous boxes taking up the entire room. Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to open them, and you know what I found? I found 500 copies of this! (Healthy Holly) Anyone have any idea what this is all about?

Apparently, it’s not very “healthy” to be caught selling these books for kick-backs. We wish Mayor Pugh a refuah sheleima, and success finding a different job…

We were thinking of selling these books as a fundraiser, but Dr. Klaff recently told me that he plans on growing something really lucrative in the garden outside for this upcoming season. I’ll give you a hint, it’s green, and based on some upcoming legislation, it’s going to be worth a lot of money…

No! What’s wrong with you people?! I’m talking about avocado!

As you may have heard, President Trump is threatening to close down the border with Mexico, and the only impact that the news outlet seem to be focusing on is the projected shortage of guacamole.

Which frankly, as a Jew, on a rather limited Pesach diet, no guacamole is actually a pretty big deal. (Maybe Jews really do run the media?)

So there you have it, for us Baltimore Jews, if it wasn’t bad enough that another mayor bit the dust, and another sports seems to be going nowhere (which is always better than going to Indianapolis…), we have Pesach, the cleaning and the food to complain about. And that’s what I want to talk about today, cleaning for Pesach without kvetching.

I have a couple of Pesach cleaning rules that I’d like to share today, and here they are:

Rule #1, Pesach cleaning is NOT spring cleaning.

Let’s review, It is forbidden to eat even a crumb of chametz, true. In your kitchen, or dining area, you really want to make sure there are no crumbs, because they could theoretically fall into your food. Fine. Clean those areas really well.

But everywhere else in your house, you are not looking for crumbs. You’re looking for things like cookies, and other large substantive pieces of chameitz that are found in easily accessible areas. How long does it take to look for cookies in your home? You don’t have to vacuum the corners of your underwear drawer, you don’t have to move your fridge or couch, just look around. It should really not take very long at all, and if it is, you’re not doing it right. You’re going overboard.

Rule #2 – Pesach preparation must be enjoyable and fun. Really.

Full disclosure, I move my couch when I clean for Pesach, I clean for crumbs. Not because I have to, but because that’s what my family always did. That’s how I grew up. But let me tell you what I remember from Pesach cleaning in my home.

My job growing up was the most thankless job possible. I was tasked with doing two things, and again, these are unnecessary, and honestly, I do not do these in my home – but this is what I did growing up:

One – It was my job to go through the pockets of every single jacket and coat in my house. You have to appreciate, six children, two adults, in Montreal – we had a lot of coats. And after doing so for probably a decade, the only thing I ever found was lint and tissues, and more tissues.

The other job I had, and again, I do not do this in my home, was to go through every single one of my father’s hundreds? Thousands? Of books. My father collects books and I was tasked with taking each book off the shelf, turning it upside down over a garbage, rummaging through all the pages, and making sure there was no chameitz in between those pages.

These were not fun tasks, I did not enjoy doing them, but – my overarching memories of cleaning for Pesach as a child are positive ones. And I was trying to figure out why. Because I also remember complaining bitterly about these jobs, and yet, I look back at Pesach cleaning in my home with these rose-eyed glasses.

And I realized that in addition to the extreme intensity in our house before Pesach, and let me tell you, it was intense, but there was also a lot of joy. One example – my parents, in their stringencies, had a rule that a week or two before Pesach one cannot leave the kitchen without shaking themselves off from all of the possible crumbs. Now I don’t know how or when, but this shaking off of crumbs ritual developed into something we called, the chameitz dance. This was back when you were still allowed to imitate Michael Jackson, and so everyone of my brothers would do their best moonwalk, I would do a little jig, and it was fun. It was silly, but it made this stringency enjoyable.

I also remember, as seemingly insignificant as this sounds, blasting music during Pesach cleaning. Normally, we had a pretty quiet home, but this time of year, for whatever reason, there was a lot of music, loud, fun music, or at least that’s my recollection. So yes, our Pesach cleaning was intense, people were a little but on edge, but there was some palpable joy in the air, and I believe that that made all the difference.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, in a recent blog post on this topic, shared a new interpretation to the question asked by the Rasha, the evil son in the Haggadah. The Haggadah quotes the evil son asking – what is all this work to you?

And the timing of this son’s question is kind of odd. The Pesach seder is lots of fun. Great food, four cups of wine, good conversation, everyone has the latest ten plagues kit, Seder Bingo, what’s he complaining about? Complain on Tisha B’av, on Yom Kippur, but on Pesach, at the Seder?!

He quotes Rabbi Elimelech Biederman who suggests that the complaint of this son, the hard work he refers to is not in reference to the seder, it’s about the weeks and maybe month leading up to it. It’s the parent yelling, No chameitz upstairs!!, it’s the moaning and complaining as we drag bag after bag of yes, overpriced food into our house with a grocery bill longer than an extra-long roll of toilet paper. And our son or daughter is watching us, and asking themselves, what do I need this for?

We’ve developed these unbelievably creative Seders. Every year, I am amazed by the ingenuity that people put into their seders. An email went out to the shul membership, asking people to email the office with their ideas and memories, and I’m blown away – Disney themed Seder, Harry Potter themed Seder, the Wonderful Mrs. Maisles Haggadah. The thought-provoking questions and games. The shtick – one of the guests dressing up as Eliyahu Hanavi and scaring the whoknowswhat out of the kid who opens the door. It’s beautiful and creates memories that last a lifetime.

But if the weeks leading up to Pesach are hellish, if the weeks leading up to Pesach are filled with gripes and complaints, if they’re filled with yelling and stress, then that son or daughter is quite justified in asking, what’s all this work for you? I don’t get it.

And that brings me to the third rule – Pesach preparation cannot only be fun and enjoyable, it has to be personally meaningful.

Let’s go back to the question of the evil son. He doesn’t just ask, what’s with all the hard work? He asks, mah ha’avoda hazos lachem, what’s this hard work for you?

And I think what he’s asking is this: If your entire seder is gimmicks, if it’s exclusively about engaging the children, and making it fun, but there’s nothing meaningful for you yourself, then your son and your daughter will see right through it.

What the child is asking is, thank you mom and dad for making Pescah great again, thank you for buying me the most amazing Afikomen present and for making the seder fun, but what’s it to you? How are you connecting to this? Because one day I’m not going to be a little child, I’m going to be an adult, how do you connect to Pesach? How do you connect to the Seder?

I’m sorry for using my own experiences once again as an example – growing up my seder was not kid-friendly. There was no shtick at all. Outside of asking the four questions, after stealing and hiding the afikomen, I distinctly remember being bored at times. But overall, the image I have of the Seder is that of my parents, my older siblings, who took it seriously, it was real to them. The conversations they had that I didn’t really follow, the reading through the text because they wanted to, and the singing with real emotion – the success my parents had in passing on the traditions was specifically because it was not directed to me, it was a genuine spiritually uplifting experience of their own that I was privy to attend and watch. As Rabbi Sacks likes to say, values are not taught, values are caught.

And that’s true for the seder as it is for the cleaning. Yes, make it fun. Make it all fun, but also make it real. There’s this new really popular Netflix show called Cleaning up with Marie Kondo. It’s a show about extreme cleaning and decluttering, and no, I did not watch it.

In addition to having some great tips on organization and cleaning, she adds a spiritual component to the cleaning; talking to objects before tossing them, asking one’s self how each object impacts us. I’m not suggesting we start talking to our belonging, but I think she’s on to something when she describes a spiritual side to cleaning-up.

Our Sages explain that chameitz represents the dirt and the clutter in our life; whether it’s the material things we don’t really need, or the habits that we need to kick. How about taking a moment, while we clean, to think about our lifestyle, to think about what it is in our life that we need to get rid of. We all have chameitz, we all have shmutz that needs to be purged; everyone needs a deep spiritual clean once in a while. So while you’re on your knees, scrubbing away, vacuuming your car, think about yourself, about what you need to do to clean up and how you’re going to do so.

(1)Clean only what you need to, (2) make it fun, and (3) make it real.

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv used to observe that we tell people to have an enjoyable Purim and a kosher Pesach. But we have it all wrong, he’d say. In truth, we need to make sure that our Purim is kosher, and that our Pesach is enjoyable. I wish you all a chag kasher v’sameiach; and a stress-free, fun, and uplifting time getting ready for it.

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