I’m not a religious Jew. But that hasn’t stopped me. For the past 48 hours I’ve been cleaning like a wild woman for Passover.
I won’t do it as well as my mother did – you could literally eat off her floors. I won’t pay attention to every prescription, like boiling every utensil that the prohibited food could have possibly touched, or as my final gesture, collecting the last few morsels of Chemetz (any food that swells) by brushing the crumbs up with a feather.
But nevertheless, I’m doing my cleaning in a BIG way.
A number of years ago I found myself cleaning like a madwoman right around this time of year. I didn’t realize why I felt that compulsion. It wasn’t just “Spring Cleaning” – it was coming from an inner drive propelled by some unspoken force.
I finally realized that my mother cleaned like crazy every year and that it had to do with Passover. My following suit was almost instinctive – as if the urge to purge was in my genes.
Our goal of course is to rid our homes of “Chemetz” – any food that expands, such as rice or pasta or anything that isn’t made of matzo (unleavened bread). We eat matzo in commemoration of the Hebrews Exodus from Egypt (termed mitzryhim or “the narrow place”) to liberation.
The story tells us that the followers of Moses were in such a big rush that they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise – hence eating Motzha for the entirety of the holiday which lasts 8 days and often leads to much gastric distress.
This purging of Chemetz and the rigorous cleaning of anything that might have been in contact with it, goes way beyond the physical, and has, as do most religious activities, a deeper spiritual message.
During the cleaning and the consuming of matzo, we are to rid ourselves of anything that inflates, such as pride or boasting – anything that stands in the way of our being completely humble.
So as my back feels like it about to break and I’ve slept only two 4-hour shifts in two days, I try to remind myself of the deeper meaning – the experience of being simple, humble and how emptying all the things I do to “puff myself up” can make space for the Holy.
This effort wasn’t so easy. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was throwing away some old quinoa, a very tiny grain-like food that expands like rice. I poured it into a garbage bag that unfortunately had a hole at the bottom, and of course before I could do anything, thousands of tiny brown cylindrical projectiles poured out, bounced and rolled all over my stove, the kitchen floor, under every chair and between the oven and the sink.
Literally faint with exhaustion, I cursed the whole concept of cleaning and humility while wondering why they didn’t name the holiday “passed out” rather than Passover.”
It was, while hunting down every last practically invisible ball of quinoa, when I reminded myself that I had made a choice – I had made a commitment to do the action because ultimately I want to experience the holiday from a humble place, a deeper place – and – there was no reason to do the action unless I remembered precisely then – at the most difficult and aggravating of times –WHY I was doing it in the first place.
What, I asked myself, did it mean to perform an action truly in the service of purification? When I had that thought, cleaning up the mess took on a whole new and deeply resonant meaning.
Thus far I’ve cleaned the refrigerator and the shelves and pantry and, the utensils, vacuumed and washed all the floors and cleaned almost everything I can think of that has touched the forbidden foods. I’ve still got the pots and pans to go, and the oven, and my desk where I sit typing now and frequently eat sandwiches
… Oh no, LOOK – hidden the mouse pad – breadcrumbs!
The tasks seem daunting to me. I can barely imagine what more religious people (mostly women) do – such as boiling all their dishes, and even putting aluminum foil on refrigerator shelves and countertops to separate the Kosher for Passover food from those surfaces, even though they’ve been cleaned specially for the holiday.
And even though those who keep kosher use two different sets of dishes for milk or meat – they must have a completely different set of dishes for Passover. OY! Those women, most of whom have many children to care for, also have to plan and prepare the food for the special meal and the soecual ritual foods for the Seder plate – and clean up again afterwards. And they have several Seders, not just one.
So I have it easy. Tomorrow all I have to do is finish up a few more Chemetz filled areas and go to the Food Coop to pick up some kosher for Passover canned macaroons, along with some fresh asparagus and Portobello mushrooms to cook for my friends’ Seders.
Today when I shared what I was doing with a client, I talked about how intense the experience is and I told him about the aluminum foil. He suggested a cartoon of G-d with a muscled arm, seated on “His” throne on high, extending a box of Reynolds Aluminum foil to the ancients. “And Let There Be Aluminum Foil for your Refrigerators!” the almighty would proclaim in a deep and resonant voice.
Finally yesterday I threw out the old spices that had lost all of their potency years ago but survived through years of previous Passover purges. For some reason this year I was finally able to let go and made way for fresh ones.
The vibrant and contrasting colors of the fresh orange cayenne pepper, sandy-brown coriander and yellow ginger lay piled on my wooden table, colorfully overflowing from their bags as I filled the just-cleaned glass jars. Their spicy vibrancy filled me with humble thoughts of beauty and simplicity and how the mindful action of letting go can create both internal and external change.
My apartment is still a cluttered mess as I’m as far from Zen as one can be, and I’m sure there is Chemetz lurking somewhere in the corners. But even if I don’t do it perfectly, I feel a sense of cleanliness and inner calm, knowing that in my own way I am clearing out and entering this Holy time anew.
My mother, I’m quite sure, would not approve of many things I do in life. But at least I can say to her now: “Mama, yes, I’m cleaning for Passover – I’m doing my job, don’t worry!”
May she Rest In Peace.
I wish a happy and sweet Passover to all who celebrate – and to everyone, may each of us be reminded that true liberation comes from a humble place and the doing of simple, mindful, actions.
Judith Z. Miller
Artist Soul Speaks