By Yochanan Gordon
Each holiday that we observe contains a myriad of laws and traditions that are enumerated in the Code of Jewish Law that are meant to be studied and practiced in preparation for each respective holiday. In addition, each holiday commemorates a certain event that occurred in history that we mark on that specific day, each and every year. That is more or less the halachic view of the holidays that we observe.
The books of Jewish thought and Kabbalah see the holidays from a more penetrating perspective—not merely as a commemoration of a day in history but the present-day unleashing of those very same lights that were in play on that day so many thousands of years ago. As the Arizal sees in the words, “And these days are commemorated and are reenacted in every generation,” meaning that commensurate with the degree that the days are commemorated we are privy to the spiritual lights that were unleashed during those times, even today.
This is part of the eternal relevance of the Torah. That is, although we are distant in time from the events that we are reenacting, because our actions generate the same spiritual properties that were unleashed on the day when that particular holiday was first introduced, it is as if we are experiencing that celebration in our own lives so many years later.
That is a perspective of the holidays on one level. In addition to the aforementioned, there are lessons that relate to the theme of each holiday that we need to adapt in our own lives. So with Pesach upon us, it would make sense to use the theme of Pesach in driving home this point. The holiday of Pesach was the prelude to the birth of the Jewish nation when G-d extricated our ancestors from Egypt as a harbinger to the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.
The Torah teaches us that there is a mitzvah on the night of Pesach to retell the story of our Exodus in a question-and-answer format, which we do in the recitation of the Haggadah. Chazal, expounding upon that verse, state, “And the more long-winded one is in the recitation of the Passover story, the more praised one is.” So we make a Pesach Seder, which consists of 15 steps towards freedom through commemorating the bondage and literally acting out the Exodus by eating the same matzah they consumed at the first Seder in Egypt, all while reclining in order to bring on the feelings of liberation in our own lives.
So in addition to going through the motions as delineated in Chazal and in the books of law, ideally, going through a Pesach season is meant to generate feelings of liberty in one’s own life, generating an elevated perspective on life wherein we could rid ourselves of the chametz in our lives and be subordinate to no other person or power outside of G-d.
One of the leavened aspects of our lives is expressed in people unable to find merit or a redeeming factor in the seemingly benign actions of others. So let’s take cleaning for Pesach as an example. The Pesach clean is an aspect of the holiday or the lead-up to it that is responsible for strife in many people’s homes. The point of contention between most spouses is not in the Pesach cleaning itself, but more specifically using the halachically mandated Pesach cleaning as an excuse for a full-on spring cleaning. It was in this regard that the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said: “Dirt is not chametz and your children are not the Korban Pesach.”
Having said that, however, a redeemed outlook of the same seemingly superfluous practice would be to discern within it a silver lining, or redeeming factor, that would make the upcoming holiday more cherished and beautiful.
This is uniquely relevant to Pesach in that we find a nuance with regard to the Exodus that is unprecedented in relation to all other yomim tovim and even the previous nine plagues, all of which were brought on with Moshe or Aharon as G-d’s messengers. When it came to the plague of the firstborn, the Torah tells us that G-d Himself entered into the land of Egypt to smite the firstborn of the Egyptians.
The verbiage employed in the Haggadah is: “I and no angel, I and no seraph, I am He and no other…” The question is asked: why was it so important for G-d Himself to engage in this plague that the angels were incapable of doing? An answer I saw is that in the angels’ inability to see through the external trappings of the people they would have been unable to distinguish between the Egyptian firstborn and the Jewish firstborn, resulting in the indiscriminate killing of both.
Upon further analysis of this idea it occurred to me that the Hebrew term for angel, “malach,” contains the same letters as the word “kelaem,” which means to destroy or obliterate. When Eldad and Meidad prophesied in the camp regarding Moshe’s demise and Yehoshua leading the nation into the land of Israel, Yehoshua, who overheard this prophecy, pleaded with his master, “My Master Moshe, destroy them!”
There is a difference between a great person and an ascetic. An ascetic is often so aloof and unrelatable, unable to see the true, unadulterated core in the soul of man. It takes a truly great person to see the positive aspects in every person and in every situation.
In a teshuvah, a halachic responsum, recorded in the Sefer Chasam Sofer in the days leading up to Pesach—at a time when his wife had banished him from his study—the Chasam Sofer writes to a person asking for his ruling in a specific situation that he cannot expound further due to the righteous women who had expelled him from his study in order to clean for the upcoming yom tov of Pesach. This teshuvah is brought to my attention every year and each time I am startled at the fact that this questioner could not get the full response of the sage and we, for posterity, are unable to read the Chasam Sofer’s full treatment of that particular query because he was run out of his study so the women could clean.
However, this year, in light of all that has been written up until here, I was more impressed at the fact that the Chasam Sofer addressed his wife and perhaps his daughters, if he had daughters, by the honorific nashim tzidkaniyos, when in all likelihood they were cleaning an area of the house that in the strict delineation of the law probably did not require cleaning.
In the chassidishe sefarim, the practice of cleaning for Pesach is accorded great significance, with the holy Rebbe of Berditchev likening the grunting sounds one emits with the Kashrak sounds that are sounded by the ba’al tokeah on Rosh Hashanah, and the reddening faces of people intensely involved in the cleaning process with the reddening of the ba’al tokea’s face, which sefarim discuss at great length with regard to the High Holidays.
Lest you wave this off as chassidishe Torah, the Gemara itself likens the backbreaking work that the Jews had to endure to the toil in Torah as it says, “Vayemareru es chayeihem b’avodah kashah—And they embittered their lives with difficult labor.” “Avodah kashah” is a reference to Talmudic questioning. “B’chomer” is a reference to kal v’chomer, “u’bil’veinim” is a reference to clarity in halachic renderings, “u’b’chol avodah ba’sadeh” is a reference to beraisa. You will recall, the Mishnah in Avos states, “Anyone who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah will have removed from him the yoke of sovereignty and worldly concerns.”
There is a clear correlation between Torah and the work that the Jews had to endure during their exile in Egypt. It goes without saying, then, that the effort of women to thoroughly clean their homes ahead of Pesach, even those areas of the home that are out of the mandate of the law, arises from a pure and pristine place and is tied to the great merit of the nashim tzidkaniyos through which we were redeemed from Egypt.
In this light, I came across a shiur by Rav Avraham Tzvi Kluger of the Nezer Yisrael Beis Medrash in Beit Shemesh in which the famed tzaddik analyzes this seemingly irrational urge to clean even those aspects of the house unrelated to the search for chametz, and sheds a penetrating and redeeming light upon it, attributing it to the great part that the women played in the overall redemption from Mitzrayim.
In the construction of the Mishkan, everyone contributed something that represented a characteristic that was close to their core. This is the main idea behind the Mishkan—that Hashem dwelled amongst each Jew individually, relating to each person’s respective donation, which was a manifestation of his or her unique connection to Hashem.
The women donated the mirrors, those mirrors that were used in Egypt in order to bring joy and gladness to their husbands’ hearts after a long and tiring day in the field.
At first Moshe was critical of this donation, which seemingly was used as a device of the yetzer ha’ra and physical desires. However, Hashem reprimanded Moshe, saying, these are more beloved to Me than all of the other donations. It was specifically a result of these mirrors that the myriads of children proliferated in the land of Egypt, which is why the mirrors were termed “ma’aros ha’tzov’os,” which is similar to the word for myriads, “tziv’os.” It is clear from here that not only was G-d not critical of the mirrors, He was able to identify the pure place of their origin and He attributed a large part of the Exodus to those very mirrors.
The kiyor was created from these mirrors, the vessel in the Mishkan used to clean the hands and feet of the kohen before he’d enter to perform the avodah. It’s a clear indication that cleanliness is a uniquely feminine characteristic, which is why specifically the women donated the mirrors from which the kiyor was made.
It is understood that the women’s beautification in Egypt, for which the mirrors were used, was an indication that the women themselves believed that G-d loved them. This is the inner content expressed by their standing opposite the mirror, which ultimately protected them from superficial and unredeemed beauty.
The altruism of the righteous women in Egypt to arouse their husbands and thereby maintain the security of the home and the proliferation of the people in the land is itself a manifestation of cleansing an internal type of chametz.
The Arizal explains that Yom Kippur is uniquely connected to the woman who had the intuitive ability to cleanse stains, which all Jews who stand in shul throughout the holy day seek to achieve. It’s for this reason that the kohen who does the avodah on behalf of all the Jews is required to be married, as the verse states, “And he atones for himself and on behalf of his house,” which Chazal expound upon to mean his wife.
And although we are not currently in the month of Tishrei, but rather in Nissan, everything that exists in the month of Tishrei under the emotion of fear manifests itself as love in the month of Nissan. It emerges that the merit of the righteous women, which led to our redemption from Egypt, was not relegated to a few historical personalities thousands of years ago; rather, it is each of our stories in the ability of our wives who serve as the rock of our homes and who are responsible for the redemptive environment in our individual homes and in the world at large—a wondrous spirit of renewal of sanctity and purity. May it be in this merit that we are ultimately led out of this exile, soon, in our days.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.