Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shvitzing for Pesach

Pesach. Again.

Oh, but this one's been different to all others (cliched as that may sound).

You know it's that time of year when the kids hum mah nishtanah, your credit card burns brighter than your chometz bonfire (if only Pick 'n Pay would realise Pesach products aren't supposed to inflate) and you drag out the once-a-year dishes (hey, I forgot we had a one-hand, sixteen-mode grater/peeler!).

But, this year is different. Our family's been extra priveleged to get to play the part of the Jewish slaves, thanks to the unplanned departure of our domestic help. Working my way through the house, I discovered that our maid had actually checked out about six months back (judging by my forensic dust-audit) and only owned up to it a couple of weeks ago (maybe she had a twang of Jewish guilt about being paid for doing nothing). Either way, my kids are dusting bookshelves and I'm scrubbing walls and floors.

I'm not about to glorify my newfound cleaner role, but it has been enlightening. Our grandparents in the Shtetl surely had smaller homes to clean, but they did it all themselves. Thank G-d, we have the luxury of cleaning help, but perhaps with it we've come to miss some of the Pesach experience. You can definitely feel liberated at your Seder table without doing "back-breaking" (or physio-inducing) labour beforehand. Pesach is the time to liberate your spirit, which is just as challenging if you live in Sandton or in Alex. No, it's not the reliving our ancestors' experience that I'm feeling in the grit and dust.

Wash-rag and window-cleaner in hand, I recall a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. One Rosh Hashanah, after blowing the Shofar, he called his congregation to attention. If you read the small print in the Machzor, you'll find a little Kabbalaesque passage after Shofar-blowing. There we ask Hashem to release the angels that we've created through the variety of Shofar blasts, and to bless us for a good year.

"What happens," asked Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, "If we haven't focused properly on the Rosh Hashanah service and we've only produced weak angels. Will we receive incomplete blessings for the New Year?"

As the crowd swallowed hard, the rebbe continued, "Kashrak is the acrostic for the sounds of the Shofar. It also stands for kratzen (scraping), sheiben (polishing), reiben (scrubbing) and kasheren (kashering dishes). If the angels produced by the shofar aren't powerful enough to elicit blessings for the year, the angels produced by the exertion of Pesach preparations are certainly powerful enough to bring us blessings for the year!"

I take comfort in that. I'm not attacking dust-bunnies, I'm generating angels.

You can't live Judaism in your head. Ours is not a religion of philosophy or theosophy; it's about action. If you want to do what Hashem wants, be prepared to break a sweat and get your hands dirty. Life will throw you many moments where you need to pause and help someone else. Those chances will usually be inconvenient and often take you places (physical, emotional or philosophical) that are uncomfortable. Next time G-d sends you that challenging person or that tedious task, consider that Judaism is about turning dust into angels.

And, if sweeping the floor to prepare for Pesach is so powerful, imagine how invigorating Pesach itself must be. If I can reach the heights of Rosh Hashanah, or higher, with my dustpan, I must surely be able to access immense blessing at the Seder itself. As the Previous Rebbe was told by his father, "All the doors of Heaven are open on Pesach night, make sure to access the right things".

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