Inspiration

Bitter Herbs, Not Bitter People

March 28, 2012

The countdown to Pesach has officially begun, complete with its angst, anxiety, stress and exhaustion.  Tragically, many people associate Pesach with backbreaking work, exorbitant expenses, endless preparation, and bread deprivation.  It is not unusual to hear moans, groans and krechts coming from both men and women when mentioning the upcoming holiday.  Most describe themselves as rolling into Pesach “like a shmatta (rag),” unable to enjoy the festive atmosphere, meaningful Sedarim, or even quality time with friends and family.

But this is not the way the Torah or our Rabbis intended it.  I would argue that the bulk of the stress, aches and pains that result from Pesach preparation are self-induced and utterly unnecessary.  True, there is a high cost of matzah, wine and kosher-for-Pesach groceries that cannot be avoided and are challenging particularly during these difficult economic times.  However, the labor intensive house preparations and extensive and arguably overcomplicated menus and recipes can all be avoided.

For some reason, Pesach has gotten away from us with the purely-voluntary but now-becoming-mandated standards, while what should be the primary goals becoming almost entirely neglected and dismissed.  Undoubtedly, Halacha demands that we seek and destroy all chametz in our possession.   Definitions of “chametz,” “seek,” and “in our possession” are all very clear and require a preparation of a home that should take only a few hours total.  Areas and places where chametz is never brought don’t need to be cleaned or checked.  Areas, places and appliances that will not be accessed or used need not be cleaned or checked; they simply need to be put away and sealed.  And any food that is not categorized as edible (a dog would not eat it) is not considered chametz.

At some point in recent Jewish history, Pesach preparation was substituted with spring cleaning.  If one is moving a refrigerator, oven, or any other heavy appliance, they are spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach.  If one is climbing on a ladder to clean a ceiling fan, taking a toothpick to a toaster or food processor, scrubbing grout with a toothbrush, emptying and wiping all dressers, closets, linen pantries, crawl spaces, or shaking out books that haven’t been opened in years, they are spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach.  Halacha demands that we go room to room confirming there is no chametz that is larger than 30 grams and edible.  This, in my opinion, can be accomplished in a few hours at most in the majority of homes.

This substitution of spring cleaning instead of Pesach preparation has come at a great cost and I fear will hurt our community deeply in the future.  Rather than entering Pesach excited, enthusiastic, and energized to spend time with family and share divrei Torah at our Sedarim, we are becoming increasingly resentful, negative and toxic about being observant.  Rather than happy people eating bitter herbs to celebrate freedom, we are becoming bitter people exchanging our freedom for unnecessary burdens in anticipation of Pesach.

Pesach, more than any other holiday or time of year, is designed to communicate our values, priorities and lifestyles to the next generation.  Pesach, and the days leading up to it, should leave our children with sights, smells, flavors, traditions, and experiences they will draw from and seek to emulate in their own homes, for the rest of their lives.

Bedikat chametz, the search for leavened bread, complete with its hide-and-seek nature, should be fun, exciting and adventurous.  Instead, for many, it has become a chore that we unburden ourselves from as quickly as possible.  Burning chametz, rolling matzah balls by hand, chopping charoses, grinding marror, setting the regal seder table, reenacting the Pesach story at our seders, welcoming visiting family, are among the activities that can be carried out with joy, enthusiasm, nostalgia and meaning.

Depleting ourselves of energy and joy by engaging in spring cleaning instead of Pesach preparation is not only depriving us of the simchah, joy, we are capable of feeling, but it is indelibly impressing on our children negative memories and associations that will likely haunt them.

As we enter the final countdown to Pesach this year, I beg you to ask yourself the question: Which sounds will ring in your children’s ears in the future when they think back to Pesach in their home?  Will it be moans, groans, bitterness and complaints? Or will they remember the joyous sounds of an energized family eagerly preparing for a meaningful yom tov, an enjoyable holiday?

The answer is up to us.  Let’s all decide to make Pesach the greatest and most memorable experience of our year.

 

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS) in Boca Raton, Florida. He serves as Co-Chair of the Orthodox Rabbinical Board’s Va’ad Ha’Kashrus, as Director of the Rabbinical Council of America’s South Florida Regional Beis Din for Conversion, and as Posek of the Boca Raton Mikvah.