Over the past few weeks, in shiurim, on social media, and in polite conversations, I have noticed a significant uptick in trash talking our grandmothers.
Specifically, we seem to be maligning that our grandmothers would spend weeks and months with palpable anxiety over the upcoming Chag HaPesach, and the crumbs they would need to find and destroy.
As we all now know, none of that was necessary. Our generation, with our unparalleled access to information, knowledge and wisdom, can safely assure our matriarchal ancestors that their efforts were in vain. Bedikas Chametz is simply not the same as spring cleaning. It never was.
And if only they would have been as wise, knowledgable and educated as we are, they too could have entered the Chag with more sleep and less stress.
If you detect a hint of sarcasm in my words, please know, there is no malice meant. I don't believe for a second that any Rabbonim or poskim are trying to belittle our grandparents. But I do think that our vastly superior access to Torah today is having some unintended consequences.
The Halacha is, of course, quite clear. Ask any Rov, and they will explain that the minimum requirements of Bedikas Chametz are really quite manageable.
But this understanding of cleaning for Pesach is not a novel invention. Since the days of the Mishna, the definition of Chametz and the places that need to be searched and cleaned have been publicly accessible.
In a Teshuva from the 1820's, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the great Chasam Sofer concludes his letter by expressing his regret that he cannot answer the question addressed to him in it's entirety (#136:4):
והיותי חוץ לחדר לימודי כי גרשוני נשים צדקניות המכבדי' לי"ט של פסח ע"כ לא יכולתי להאריך ככל הצורך
I find myself outside of my study, for I have been exiled by righteous women who are honoring Pesach, I am unable to cover the question appropriately.
It is hard for me to imagine that Rebbetzin Sofer did not know the Halacha. Her husband, the Chasam Sofer, was the single most influential halachik authority of their generation. One would think that he would have told her that in order to properly address the questions sent to him, she should understand the minimum requirement of Pesach Cleaning. With the world awaiting his responses, and for the sake of Torah and Klal Yisrael, cleaning his study should take no more than a few minutes, if that. But he didn't say that. He proudly accepted that the women of his household were correct in imposing his temporary exile. And fuller responses to questions would need to wait.
And so, in defense of our grandmothers, I would like to suggest that they were not ignorant (and perhaps we are). The Halacha was always well known, but many of our matriarchs chose to do more than was required.
If this suggestion is difficult to accept, perhaps it is because our basic assumption of Mitzvos is very different from theirs.
We think of Bedikas Chametz, indeed of all mitzvos, as a task to complete. There is a job to do, and result to be achieved. In the case of this particular obligation: The home needs to be cleaned of all chametz. And naturally, like all questions of Halacha, there is a basic minimum requirement of how much cleaning needs to be done.
But there is another aspect of mitzvos, a far more profound understanding: that the object of the mitzvah is not the house, but the person cleaning it. At the core of every mitzvah is transformation of the self.
Reb Pinchas of Koretz (אמרי פנחס ערב פסח קסו) explained:
Through the intensity of the preparations of Pesach, a person forgets themselves. They shed who they are, and then they can find themselves anew.
This is the secret that our grandmothers once knew, and apparently, that we have since lost: There are no short-cuts to transformation. Cleaning for Pesach was never about simply preparing our homes. It was about preparing ourselves.
At this juncture a disclaimer is important: I am not, for even a moment, suggesting that we begin to take on additional and unnecessary stringencies when we are subject to so many more pressures, deadlines and pressing needs. It is my firm belief that demanding more than the Halacha requires is a recipe for burn out, and does nothing to inspire connection and commitment. (It's also, most likely, the reason that so many families have fled from preparing for Pesach to Pesach hotels.)
What I am suggesting is two-fold:
Firstly, the obvious: That we look more kindly upon our mothers and grandmothers. They knew what they were doing. There is a reason so many of us more vivid memories of preparing for Pesach than for any other Chag. It was real, it was palpable and it was demanding. We owe those memories to the people that instilled them in us.
Secondly, a far more subtle truth:
The light-hearted sarcasm and distain that our generation and our community has developed for previous generations is borne of certain intellectual elitism.
But knowing more and understanding more does not make us better people. It only makes us capable of becoming better people.
Today, we can calculate and issue heteirim and leniencies for many of the practices of the Jews of yesteryear. Everyone knows that with the right amount of asking around there will almost always be some opinion we could find to justify our behavior (or lack thereof). But none of these brilliant explanations can generate the transformation that hard work, perseverance and dedication provides.
The Vilna Gaon (בפירושו לספרא דצניעותא) explains that at its core, Galus, exile, is the separation of the body and soul of the Jewish people. He continues: Our soul is the Torah, and the Body of our nation is our actions. Exile is when our thoughts are sublime, elevated, brilliant and lofty, and our body is off doing something else, disconnected from our minds and intellect. A genius idea that removes us from the world of action might make us feel smart, but it only perpetuates the notion that Torah belongs in Shamayim and in books, rather than in our hearts and homes.
I finally began to understand this while training for a marathon this year. Running a marathon is not about getting to the finish line at the end of 26.2 miles. It's about becoming a person who can run 26.2 miles.
There is a lot of knowledge that is required to train well. I needed to learn about the relationships between and effects of timing, heart-rate, hydration, weather, nutrition, sleep and stress. Not to mention the deep need to understand my own emotions. Marathon training forces you to learn about yourself. And to do it well you need to train smart.
Training smart is not the same thing as training hard. You can train hard and very badly, burning yourself out, getting injured. But every runner will tell you: No amount of training smart can absolve you from training hard.
There are better and worse ways to do it, but they are all hard. They are all time consuming and grueling. There is no easy way to train for a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do, because self transformation requires time, practice and training. Knowledge is not enough.
If you want to travel 26.2 miles without the hard work, get in a car.
I fear, that in the pursuit of a more compassionate and empathetic understanding of Halacha, we have been passively encouraging a disdain for the marathons of Yiddishkeit, in favor of the cars.
True, we'll get to the same place. Often much quicker. But we arrive at our destination no different than when we left. And what a tragedy it would be for us to Uber through our lives, with no change in who we are from one Pesach to the next.
I am not, God forbid, challenging the immense sensitivity of our poskim today. And I am certainly not advocating for stringencies that will cause damage.
If the thought of marathon training induces anxiety, and prevents your from more immediate and pressing obligations, then it is most certainly assur. The same is true about the "extras" of Halacha. All of this is to say: Pesach Cleaning does not need to be the difficult thing that you, or anyone in our generation, is working on. But something practical needs to be. We need to choose it, we need to lean into it. We need to work on it.
The mothers of our people spent the weeks before Pesach volunteering to do more than the minimum because that is how they transformed themselves. And that's how they demonstrated to their husbands and children that hard work is essential in the process of personal and religious growth. They role-modeled personal discomfort in pursuit of higher values. They demonstrated the accomplishment of hard work rather than a quick fixes.
Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew the harsh truth that we are not our thoughts but we are our actions.
And that's what being an Eved Hashem is all about. This is why He took us out of Mitzrayim: That we might choose to do something difficult in the pursuit of a better self, better home and better world.
When I was in 11th grade, I was privileged to spend a few weeks learning in the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg as part of their winter vacation program.
Like many teenagers, I was trying to figure out a system of priorities in life and Yiddishkeit. I realized, already then, that it's not always intuitive to understand what's important, what's extraneous and what's incorrect. This challenge is constantly compounded by multiple factors: community standards, family customs and differing opinions.
Even today, I'm working to establish rubrics and perspectives through which I should see the world. I imagine that this will be a life long project.
But I recall that winter that I approached the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Goldfein זצ״ל and asked him what he thought about me taking on the custom of Chalav Yisrael. He looked at me intently and then asked: "If you decide to eat only Chalav Yisrael, what will that mean when you spend Shavuos at your aunt? Will you be able to eat her cheesecake?" "No, I suppose not," I replied. "Do you think that will upset her?" "Probably." "Well then, it seems that you have a choice to make. Are you going to be Machmir to observe Chalav Yisrael, or are you going to be Machmir to have Derech Eretz for your aunt?"
"Always remember," he concluded, "There is no such thing as a Chumrah (a stringency) that doesn't come with a Kulah (a leniency) somewhere else."
This idea - conveyed in a few short moments - has been cemented in my mind since then. It is possibly one of the most powerful tools to asses and determine the right cause of action.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, was famous for instilling this sense of priority, as is evident by this, now famous, Pre-Pesach story:
When he was older, he no longer went to bake his own matzah before Pesach, but rather he asked his students to bake his matzas mitzvah for him. The students asked their teacher, “What are the ‘Chumros‘ (stringencies) the Rebbe practices during the time he bakes matzah?” All sorts of different stringencies are practiced by righteous individuals while baking their Seder Matzahs. They asked Rav Yisrael Salanter which Chumrah he was particular about. He told them “I am very careful not to yell at the woman who cleans up between every batch of matzah baking. She is a widow. Please speak kindly with her.”
Parents have often mentioned to me that they are at a loss to determine which, if any mitzvos should be "forced" onto their children. "My son doesn't want to come to minyan... My daughter doesn't want to wear skirts...(etc.) Is it right to force them? Or will it backfire? Will they simply rebel? And if don't will they think it is unimportant?"
I don't have any axiom or rubric to answer those questions - I think that they are particular to each parent and child and mitzvah. But there is a category of mitzvos that we most certainly should insist on: Derech Eretz.
Derech Eretz is universally understood. Insisting that our children are menchen is a Torah and societal imperative. Our morning davening contains the words: לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים - A person should always be fearing of Heaven. My Rebbe, Rav Blachman often told us that their is a comma here; לעולם יהא אדם - You should first be a person, a mench. Only then can you be a ירא שמים.
Tragically, observant Jews are often not well known for their Derech Eretz. The COVID pandemic has brought this to a fore in a powerful and upsetting way.
But thankfully, overwhelmingly, I think our community is likely a little above average in the Derech Eretz category. This doesn't mean that there isn't work to do in the ways that we speak, interact and educate. But at least in theory, we believe in treating all people with respect and dignity. We try to live with the feeling that each person is created in the image of God, and we grapple honestly with areas of Halacha that don't fit comfortably into our understanding of morality.
Rav Desler (חלק ד עמוד רמד) explains that דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה means that being a Mench is the prerequisite to a life of Torah. Without it, there can be no success in Talmud Torah.
But there is a fallacy that I fear we have fallen into. Classically, we understand that the value of "Derech Eretz" finds expression in מצות בין אדם לחברו - mitzvos between a person and their friend. And we assume that "Torah" is equated with מצות בין אדם למקים - mitzvos between a person and Hashem.
But this plainly incorrect.
Sefer Vayikra opens with Hashem calling Moshe to the Mishkan. Why does Moshe need to the called? He was the one who build the Mishkan?!
The Talmud (יומא ד ב) explains:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר לָמָּה הִקְדִּים קְרִיאָה לְדִיבּוּר לִימְּדָה תּוֹרָה דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם דָּבָר לַחֲבֵירוֹ אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן קוֹרֵהוּ
The verse says: “And He called unto Moses, and the Lord spoke unto him from within the Tent of Meeting, saying”. Why does the verse mention calling before speaking, and God did not speak to him at the outset? The Torah is teaching etiquette: A person should not say anything to another unless he calls him first.
At first blush, this seems like a nice idea; a good lesson in politeness and Derech Eretz. But this defies our categories. Chazal are telling us here that from Moshe's relationship with Hashem, we should learn how to treat our friends. Apparently, we are to act towards Hashem with Derech Eretz as well!
Having Derech Eretz for Hashem might seem strange; until we realize that beyond the halachik characterizations of mitzvos, Hashem wants us to have a relationship with Him.
This relationship might be different from others in our lives, but the fundamentals of Derech Eretz remain the same.
Consider, for example, that a parent wants nothing more than their children to love each other. The parent will often prioritize siblings getting along, over almost anything else.
But imagine a child that, after years of hearing the importance of being a good sibling, declares: "My parent doesn't really care about my love and respect of them as long as I'm nice to my brother and brush my teeth."
That would be a tragedy. That's the wrong conclusion entirely!
Shlomo Hamelech makes the argument for relating to Hashem as a friend in Mishlei (כז י):
רֵעֲךָ וְרֵעַ אָבִיךָ אַל תַּעֲזֹב - Your friend and your father's friend, you should not abandon.
Rashi explains here: Who is your friend and your father's friend. Hashem; who loves you and loves your ancestors.
Many of the Rishonim and Acharonim ask why it is that we will not be making a bracha on the Mitzvah of Telling the Story of the Exodus on Seder Night. And there are many explanations.
But The Sfas Emes writes simply: We never make a bracha on mitzvos that come from being a mench. We don't make a bracha on honoring parents, giving tzedeka or visiting the sick, though all of them are obligatory. We would have done it with or without a commandment. Likewise, our obligation of Telling the Story of how Hashem saved us is a simple expression of immense gratitude! If we can't say thank you to Hashem for saving us, loving us and giving us a life and future, then we're simply jerks.
Perhaps this should reframe the way we think of leniencies and stringencies. Perhaps this will redefine our focus in preparing for Pesach. It is worth considering: in which of our practices are we trying to build closer relationships with our friends, our families and Hashem?
Hashem should help us to become people of principles and priorities. We should live lives of Derech Eretz and closeness. And perhaps, we, just like Moshe, will be called back to the Mikdash.