I’ve started cleaning for Passover, have you? I started with some small things: setting aside what needs to be consumed before April 6 (how many challahs can I make with 20 lbs of flour?), making a dent in the scrubbing…just getting in the mood for purging my entire house of hametz before going to work on the next episode of The Big Bang Theory. Standard stuff, you know how it is.
I miss my grandmother today. She was a woman who really knew how to clean. Give that 5- foot-tall, 5-foot-wide Hungarian balabusta a sponge in a kitchen and by nigthfall, the sink would take on a luster unseen before her thick hands set to it. My grandmother lived a life of cleaning and cooking and sewing and caretaking in an apartment in the Bronx with my grandfather, his father (who had active Tuberculosis, by the way), and three daughters, the middle of whom was my mother. My mother learned to cook and clean from her mother, and passed on those skills to me. We spent many pleasant and productive Type-A Personality hours cleaning and organizing and washing my dolls’ clothes and darning socks (any other 36-year-old out there have a memory of darning socks on a wooden darning egg!? Didn’t think so!). It was a special time for us, and when I watched my grandmother clean our house when she visited, I saw myself and my mother as part of a long line of cleaning and cooking women who were destined to greatness in our own way.
My grandmother was frum (orthodox) and she kept a kosher home. She rarely ate out at all during her entire life, and Pesach (Passover) was a time for great stringency for her, as it is for many women. I am frum now; far more observant than I was when she died over 10 years ago. I wish she could see me frum. I’m sad she didn’t get to see me make a challah and take challah and make the blessing or bentsch licht (light the Shabbat candles) like she did. I’m sad she didn’t get to see my sons say the blessings over washing their thick hands before the Hamotzi. It means a lot to me to be observant, and I also know it connects me to my grandparents’ generation and every generation before that. It’s not the only way to honor our families, but I absolutely see my observance as a love for them and their choices and lives through my own passion for this life.
At Pesach, the cleaning of a home is a challenge unlike any other time of the year. Every crumb must be unearthed, every bit of hametz eliminated and purged. Why the apparent obsessive-compulsiveness of halakhic Judaism at Pesach? We are not only searching for oats, rye, spelt, barley, and wheat and other non-Kosher-for-Passover ingredients and foods. We are searching for the parts of ourselves that may also be hiding and in need of purging.
How often do I claim to be pure of intention when I am in actuality, not pure at all? How often do I know I should apologize to someone but my haughtiness stops me? How often do I say I won’t entertain fantasies that only bring me sadness but get lost in my head anyway, cursing the Universe for my misery?
More often that I would like to admit. (How often am I in denial about bad habits? Well, three seconds ago for a start). It’s during Pesach that I am looking for those parts of me that are not pure, not humble, not productive, and not honest, and I shoo them away and bid them farewell. Sometimes those parts of me are hard to unearth and it takes time to find them and get them out. And sometimes they are deep in crevices and I call in a special set of tools to remove them, just as I dragged a toothpick along the lines of the drawers where I keep my baking spoons this morning.
Being a person of Torah values is not easy and it’s not something that ever leaves me. The notion is not that God is watching over me to find fault in me, but the tremendous sense of responsibility to honor my grandmother, for example, is with me all of the time. And the memories of my mother teaching me to clean is always with me, too.
And how grateful I am that my Judaism can take my blessed grandmother’s dignity, and my mother’s skills, and my desire to be a person worthy of happiness and blessing in this world and the Next One and that same Judaism shows me every single day and every single Pesach that the world is not perfect until each person finds a way to make it so.
Here’s a challenge: in the next few weeks, take on some spring cleaning you might not normally have thought to do. Dig deep, and work hard. And may the spring cleaning of thousands of women over thousands of years bring us all closer to our collective destiny.