Pessah and its memories are why we are here and why we have the right to be here.
Now that Purim, with all of its joys, hangovers and calories, is out of the way, the Jewish world bravely confronts the great holiday of Pessah and its myriad preparatory requirements. One of the time-honored rituals in Jewish households is the pre-Pessah house-cleaning frenzy that overwhelms the family, especially the female part thereof.
The eradication of hametz from the house is only the pious front that is put forward to rationalize the otherwise irrational drive to put everything in the house in its proper place, shiny, spotless and dusted. Every useful item that is needed for daily efficiency in the home, and especially in my study, can no longer be found because it has been placed “where it belongs.” Of course, over the course of time as the year progresses, usually by Shavuot, these items so necessary for comfortable living are no longer “where they belong” but rather “where I can find them.” But that it is grist for the mill for another column that I may yet write some day.
My task in *the ritual of* Pessah cleaning is mainly relegated to explaining why the ruthless cleaning going on before my eyes and the movement of my tapes, papers, and books to “where they belong,” is not really necessary, in strict halachic terms. I know that this a doomed lost cause as far as I am concerned, since Jewish women from time immemorial have not trusted the “leniency” of Halacha when it comes to pre-Pessah house cleaning. But at least I go through the motions of attempting to mitigate the household whirlwind that always accompanies the advent of the great holiday of freedom and redemption.
However, my real task before Pessah is to dust, spray with a protective spray and place in order – “where they belong” – my books. Since I have acquired a sizable library of books over the years, this is no small task.
I am a procrastinator by nature when it comes to executing household chores. Nevertheless, I have a great sense of anticipation when it comes to the pre-Pessah cleaning of my books and placing them in correct order on my library’s shelves. Books are memories. I remember the circumstances and places where I purchased most of my books. I can identify which are the books of my youth and spring and which are the ones I bought in my later years.
I see the books that I purchased out of my saved coins when I was in the yeshiva (I never smoked because I needed that cigarette money for books) and I am flooded by the serene and joyous memories of those golden years of intensive Torah study and the camaraderie of friends that yeshiva life engendered. I remember that this is the book that I used when studying with this particular holy teacher of mine and, even though he is now long since gone from the woes of this world, he is still alive to me as I again open and look into that book.
I carefully dust the two books that I have from my grandfather’s library and remember the piece of sugar that he put in my mouth when, as a child, I correctly interpreted the words of Rashi for him. That sweetness has never departed from me. It has nurtured me on many a dark and disappointing day in my life.
The world correctly identified the Jewish people as being the “People of the Book.” It is “the book” that has preserved us as a people and revitalized Jewish life in all places and times. For “the book” – the Bible, the Talmud, the love of learning, the intellectual stimulus and the respect for scholarship and scholars – is the collective memory of the Jewish people. In telling us what was, the book also informs us as to what is now and what will yet be.
One cannot approach Pessah without the gift of memory. For Pessah is all memory. And therefore the household cleaning that precedes it is also part of the necessary process of memory. It may be chided, but never scoffed at. Pessah and its memories are why we are here and why we have the right to be here. It is paradoxical how that getting rid of the hametz allows the memories suppressed by our everyday preoccupations to flood back into our minds and hearts. So, let us get on cheerfully with our Pessah cleaning. One never knows what one will find while cleaning the house for Pessah.
Copyright © 2001