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.