Sometimes the pain of conflict or loss is too great to confront. The genius of our religion (despite the way it is often misused) is to saddle us with things to do.
Often this helps us cope with pain by distracting, preoccupying and giving us something to keep us busy. This is true of our days of mourning for relatives we call "the Shiva", the Seven. We might want to be left alone with our pain but we are forced to encounter others instead of turning inwards. We have things to say and do, as we make the transition back from the abyss to some form of normality. This is how I feel now as we are approaching Pesach.
There is so much pain and danger in the world around us, a cacophony of recrimination, angry pained voices determined to destroy and kill, that my response is to want get on with the seemingly boring and petty details of preparing for Pesach. It might take my mind off terror and help me just get on with living. The affirmation of life is the only reaction to death. That is why in mourning we recite kaddish. It is an affirmation of spirit. That is how most people cope with living in terror zones.
Preparing for Pesach is quite simple really. According to the Torah one simply has to remove anything containing leaven. The Talmud clarifies that one only needs to check wherever one might reasonably expect to find such chametz. One only has to look a little further in than the immediate surface if one suspects there might be some there. This a far cry from the heavy spring cleaning, purging surfaces with boiling water, covering tops and shelves and totally separate sets of cutlery, china and utensils.
Most of our forefathers did not live, it is true, in bright convenient apartments and houses with modern surfaces, vacuum cleaners and our advertising ladies’ aversion to specks of dust. For them preparing for Pesach was an essential annual part of their struggle to make hovels homes.
For many of us it has now become an exhausting, neurotic struggle. Housewives bear the major burden; barely survive the preparations, to collapse exhausted and all but insensible by the time the seder meal is on the table. Others are able to afford an army of helpers to take the strain and some can simply shut up their homes and go off on holiday to Glatt Cancun, Palm Springs or Sodom! Modern life has made being religious at one and the same time impossibly demanding and also easy if you can pay for avoidance. A bit like paying taxes. Only those who can’t afford specialist lawyers get clobbered!
The truth is that keeping Pesach strictly needn’t be as forbidding or demanding or expensive as it is. But a whole legion of professionals has a stake in maintaining the fiction that everything must be replaced or duplicated. Everything that passes down the gullet or anything that comes into contact with the skin can only be supervised. And struggling families pay double for jars of coffee, bags of sugar, bottles of water where the chances of chametz being present are as likely as a side of bacon in a packet of unsupervised tea. I take the unfashionable view that most people can reasonably clean surfaces and due diligence can discover if there is any ingredient that contains forbidden substances. Preoccupation with minute elements that have been chemicalized to the point where a dog wouldn’t lick at it is simply going beyond anything our predecessors can ever have imagined. It is true that the law on chametz is indeed stricter, even than the other laws of kosher food. A particle is enough, not an olive’s worth. But it is not irrational.
The cynic in me tells me this is all business. Rabbis finance themselves, Jewish Caters support themselves and kosher businesses swell their bottom lines by encouraging us in our naivety and fear of being caught out or suspected of dietary heresy. And yet perhaps this annual preoccupation is necessary to take our minds off the horrors around us. But if it is, then we need to be using it creatively, to ask questions.
I remember many years ago hearing Count Scharwtzenburg in Vienna who had just been presented with a Haggadah, pointed to it and said how envious he, as a good Catholic was of the Jews who were encouraged to ask questions, unlike Catholics who were exhorted to obey authority. But it is actually the Torah that requires us to deal with questions. Any question will do as the Talmud emphasizes. There is a mitzvah to discuss and to ask but not to go through a set text. The Haggadah like our formal prayers was originally just a menu, a guide for people who could not pray themselves or did not know how to ask. But if we just sit bored we will not have fulfilled our obligation. We must try to challenge our religious and political ideas, not to reject them so much as to purify them and return to the source. Otherwise we will be like those Israelites who only saw the dying bodies at the Red Sea but couldn’t raise themselves to appreciate Sinai.
I’m sorry for this sermon. I am excited at the prospect of another Pesach with its tastes and smells and rituals and exhaustions and challenges. I am sad that for so many it will be a tiring, dull routine, a holiday with a noisy disorganized Seder or two or an expensive drain on fragile resources. It will be an opportunity for shrill ideologues and political hacks to hammer out pre-digested clichés. Sure the letter counts, but not if it destroys the spirit.
If you are the same person at the end of Yom Kippur you were at the start then it didn’t work. The same goes for Pesach. Being in involved in a battle for survival does not overrule the requirement to be sensitive to God’s creatures. This is why our celebration on Pesach is muted by halachic restrictions. Any victory has its victims and God commanded us not to hate.
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