This is the week of cleaning and scouring. Out come the pots and frying pans, the familiar plates and the half forgotten dishes unused from one year’s end to the other, from the depths of their respective cupboards which now receive a scrubbing and dousing which removes the old encrusted flakes of dough and splashes of tomato sauce from corners which they should never have reached in the first place. Even the oven is eventually coaxed into parting with its grime and after much elbow-grease the grids finally shine almost as they did in the forgotten years when they were new. If a little bit of ingrained charcoal from the sauce of an apple pie which spilled over from its dish six months ago refuses to quit the floor of the oven, well then, so be it. It’s probably not ra’oui le’achilat celev – fit for consumption by a dog – the halakhic definition of when something ceases to be considered food (though in my experience relatively little passes this ultimate test). Jerusalem at this season becomes a city of beaten out carpets draped over balconies.
What has this crazy activity (much of which I have to confess to loving) got to do with anything of any importance?
Last Tuesday Nicky and I took a day out and walked in the New Forest. We stopped for a while in a grass glade, while the dog immersed himself in a mikvah of mud. Above the semi-circle of grey oaks surrounding us was a rim of pale brown, made by countless buds fed by the sap of the spring. Soon everywhere will burst into pale green fragrance. Back home in the garden many of those buds have already opened and the tiny red leaves of our young miniature chestnut tree have that sweet delicacy of infant hands. What tyrant can hold back the passionate, inexorable spring?
Yet precisely amidst this joy, and Pesach is the festival of both spring and freedom, one senses the tragedy of so much of human history. What does a person, any person, want, if not to be allowed to grow towards the light, to let their heart unfurl in the warmth of the sun, to dance in the green shadows and at the sound of rain, to seek love, to rejoice in the beauty of the earth and its abandon and to worship the God of all this wonder? That’s why we read the glorious, romantic Song of Songs on Pesach.
But the world is full of cruelty, negligence and repression. We kill, and we let die. We allow lives to pass from birth to death without liberty, without enough to eat and drink, without the right to sing in freedom the songs of their own people and their own heart.
It is against this crime that Passover, the Festival of Freedom is in perpetual rebellion. God is the energy in the heart and kernel of all life and will not allow us, or any human being, or any living creature, to be enslaved without the essence of all existence crying out in protest.
How does this connect with standing with chapped hands immersed in dirty water at the kitchen sink?
In all that scrubbing and scouring I’m not saying, ‘I have a dirt fetish’, or ‘I’m willing to let some ancient, male-dominant rabbinic law turn me into a nervous wreck’. The activity is an expression of something quite different. What I’m really saying is: ‘I will not allow any part of me, not my kitchen, not my home, not my heart, not my relationships, not my moral sensitivity, not my joy in life’s endless creative energy, to become dull, dirty and crusted over, so that I no longer feel, or see, or think, or care, or protest, or sing anymore.
Let life dance! Let even the oven shine!