Something Practical – On Pesach cleaning
I’m sure it’s not cool to say it, but no, I don’t hate Pesach cleaning. This is not because I’m male and have spent my life watching others do the work. I wasn’t brought up that way and am happy to get my hands dirty, wrinkled with hot water, in short anything except burnt (again) by the boiling water used in kashering the cutlery.
There are two reasons why I actually like Pesach cleaning, at least much of the time. I’m not suggesting it’s the most important aspect of the festival or that it should become a form of slavery to every speck and spot which, unlikely as it may seem, could just possibly be a time-hardened crumb from some long forgotten slice of toast. (For the due processes of Pesach cleaning and kashering please see the relevant sections of The Pesach Companion which we hope to scan and attach tomorrow).
The first reason is that there is no learning like doing. I think I know why I know what to do at Pesach. My grandmother grew up in a devoted rabbinical household. She was by all accounts a brilliant cook; not just her recipes but her understanding of how a Jewish kitchen works must have come from observing her parents. My father learnt from her, especially from the war years in Palestine when she eked out a living for the family by providing rooms and meals for British officers stationed in Jerusalem. I in turn would watch my father and mother. This was our best companionship, dipping the cutlery in boiling water, making the bottom of the old pots gleam. We laughed, we felt close and we made the kitchen kosher. It’s not just that what we don’t do, we can’t teach. It’s that we lose the bond of generations, or of friendships, which are often sealed most deeply over the most basic matters, the sink, the stove and the spoons.
The second reason is about mess. All year stuff accumulates which one never quite musters the will to throw into the recycling bin. All year the shelves and corners fill. It is a strange joy to clear them out, to strip them bare, and to watch the steam rise from the hot water as it penetrates and cleanses every nook. And this itself becomes an important principle for the Seder; we regroup around the base of things, around the basis of our values.
Something about the Haggadah – on the story
As we simplify and reorganise our home, so we clarify to ourselves what really matters. We do so by telling the story of the Haggadah. We can shorten it (for the children, or for anyone who is unwell) or we can lengthen it (‘the more the better’ the Haggadah itself enjoins us). But we have to tell the story of the Exodus on Seder night. We must begin at the beginning and travel in the right direction, me’avdut lecherut, from slavery to freedom. Why is this story the story, the essential narrative of Judaism itself?
I often think of the moment right at the opening of the Book of Exodus when Pharaoh addresses his fellow Egyptians: ‘Look’, he says, ‘The Children of Israel are a nation’ before warning them that these foreigners now constitute a threat. It’s the first time anywhere that we are defined in such terms. We’re no longer just a family, but a people, a nation. This moment is therefore the start of our national history, the very moment we become slaves. Why? Why not begin with conquest and glory, or at least when God gave us the Ten Commandments?
I believe the answer takes us to the very essence of being Jewish. The first and defining experience of our people is the struggle for equality, dignity and justice. Time and again the Torah takes us back to this touchstone of our values. Shabbat, Judaism’s single most important institution, is not about remembering the creation, but also zecher le’yetziat Mitzrayim, in memory of going out of Egypt. For what would make a person value rest, free time and autonomy more than awareness of what it’s like to be a slave? Likewise, the memory of slavery is at the heart of Judaism’s concern with justice: ‘Don’t oppress the stranger’ we are taught, ‘because you’ve known what an outsider’s life is like’. ‘Don’t take a widow’s garment as a pledge…But remember that you were slaves in Egypt’.
We tell the story of the Exodus both to confirm our historical identity and continuity and to affirm our moral identity as Jews.
Dignity, justice, freedom, hope and faith: as we clean our kitchens and make them shine, we recall our essential values so that they should glow in our lives.