More than 3,300 years ago, God swept the Jews out from slavery in Egypt, where we had toiled for 210 years. He did not wait for a United Nations resolution on the matter – the Almighty acted unilaterally, and for this, we are forever grateful. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is central to our lives as Jews – so central, in fact, that we mention it in our prayers each day, morning and evening, as well as in the Kiddush, which sanctifies our Sabbath wine.
Ironically, the holiday that celebrates our liberation from slavery also involves a lot of hard physical work. During this week-long holiday we may not eat, own, or benefit from the type of leavened products, or chametz, that we normally enjoy all year round: bread, crackers, pasta, and even wheat germ.
The Haggadah relates that God took us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” These are useful images to keep in mind, because when you are preparing for Passover you’re going to need both a mighty hand (two would be better) and an outstretched arm to get to those hard-to-reach crevices behind the couch where your kid dropped a packet of Oreos a few months back. While cleaning for this Festival of Freedom, many of us will scrub our homes to within an inch of our lives, finally sitting down to the seder serene in the knowledge that our homes are not only sparkling clean, but more importantly, kosher for Passover.
But sometimes, in our zeal to create a kosher for Passover home, we go overboard, working so hard we end up too exhausted on seder night to stay awake past the soup course. It seems logical to spring clean while Passover cleaning (I bet this is where the idea originated.) But if you are going to vacuum the ceiling vents, it doesn’t make your home any more kosher for Passover. And if the cost of gleaming home is a woman (it’s usually the woman) who cannot enjoy the holiday, that price was too high.
Our ancestors had no such decisions to make. When Moses told them it was time to escape from their Egyptian tormentors, no one said, “Wait! I didn’t finish sweeping the floor yet!” When Pharoah finally relented under the duress of the plagues sent by God to let our people go, we had to skedaddle. Little could we guess that we wouldn’t enter the Promised Land for another forty years.
So why can’t we just commemorate our liberation with some traditional Jewish comfort food, like Chicken Chow Mein? Why does scrubbing down the house and eating hard, crummy matzah remind us of freedom?
I believe the answer is that freedom is not just a physical reality – it’s a spiritual condition. Without structure to our lives there’s no freedom, only chaos. Our value system is our spiritual gravity – the structure that keeps us grounded morally. It gives us enough space to grow, but not so much space that we’ll just float around aimlessly, experimenting with potentially disastrous lifestyle ideas. It’s no coincidence that God gave us the Torah – His blueprint for living – after our liberation from slavery. Slaves are not free to make choices for ourselves. But as a newly liberated people, we needed guidelines. And who better to give them than the Creator Himself?
Similarly, the leavening (chometz) that we search for before Passover isn’t just physical. Our sages teach that the chometz is a metaphor for the “leavening” in our own personalities – the arrogance and egotism that can puff us up higher than a loaf of freshly baked bread. That’s why preparing for Passover is about much more than looking for an old candy bar left in a jacket pocket. It’s a spring cleaning for the soul, trying to rid ourselves of pettiness, selfishness, and tunnel vision. We may be vacuuming with one hand while also taking an inventory of our character—talk about multi-tasking! If we can take this spiritual inventory, then when we sit down to our seders we will be free – truly free—to enjoy this pivotal rendezvous with God, just as our ancestors have done for more than 3,300 years. We will celebrate not just our liberation from slavery, but our reconnection to the tradition that has ensured our miraculous survival as a people.
Who knows? Any people able to digest this much matzah must surely be an indestructible people indeed.
Judy Gruen’s latest book, Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping, provides laughter all year round. Catch up on other Mirth and Meaning blogs you may have missed on judygruen.com.