What is the Job of Pesach Cleaning?

4.7.2015

When Rabbi Kula was here last week, he framed what is happening in Jewish life today in terms of changes in modern technology. He gave the analogy of a newspaper. Hundreds of newspapers have gone out of business in the past decade. But, that doesn’t mean that people are less interested in the news. They are simply getting their news from another source.

It’s natural in such a situation for the institutions which have been the traditional delivery systems to feel threatened. But, the response to the new reality should not be: how do we protect the newspapers? The response should be to ask: what is the job that newspapers do for us? And, if we can get that job done better, so be it.

Applying this analogy to Jewish life today, we get the following idea. We Jews have been worrying far too much about our survival, our Jewish identity, our practices and the survival of our institutions. That’s like worrying about the survival of newspapers instead of worrying about whether people are reading, hearing and understanding the news.

Instead of worrying about Jewish identity, we should be asking the following question: What is the job of being Jewish? Rabbi Kula answered. He said the job of all Jewish practice and ideas is to lead to human flourishing. So, he challenged us as a congregation to take each Jewish practice and ask ourselves: Not – how does this mitzvah make me more Jewish? Rather, what is the job of this mitzvah? How does it lead to human flourishing? How might it make me a better human being?

He gave the example of mezuzah. The mezuzah is on the threshold between the outside world and the home. Our outside world self is our ambitious self. And our inside the home self is our nurturing, relationship self. Often these selves clash. Rabbi Kula said, he began taken a minute as he kissed the mezuzah before entering his home to reflect on how his awareness needed to change as he entered the house. As a result, he changed. He didn’t run to the computer or start opening the mail the minute he came home. He paid attention to his wife and family. The mezuzah had a job to do. And, it did the job well. It helped Rabbi Kula to flourish more as a husband and father.

I love this approach to the practices of Judaism. So, today I’d like to look at another example. The platform is Passover. As Rabbi Kula said, Passover has many apps. I would like us to think about the app called Pesach cleaning. What is the job of Passover cleaning? How does it make us better human beings?

As an introduction to that, I’d like to tell you about an article I read this week. It’s in a book called “Radical Responsibility” celebrating the work of Rabbi Jonathan Saks. And, this article by Ron Heifitz looks at the psychology of Jewish practice in much the same way as Rabbi Kula did. Except that instead of using the lens of technology, Heifitz uses the frame of evolutionary biology.

He says that in biology, evolution has three key tasks when faced with an environment that demands adaptation and change: First, to identify the DNA to conserve. Second, to identify the DNA to discard. And, third, to innovate new DNA.

The story of the Exodus conforms to this model. God took the Jewish people out of Egypt. Our whole life changed dramatically and this produced extreme stress. That’s why we were constantly crying and moaning in the desert. The stress reached a peak when Moses sent out scouts to the Promised Land. They came back and panicked the people with reports of giants in the land. At that moment, we were a people who could not adapt to change.

Heifitz says, if a species is lucky, it will produce variant individuals (mutants) who are capable of surviving in the new, challenging environment. This will buy time for further variations to emerge and consolidate more robust adaptations. In the case of our people, Joshua and Caleb were the mutants. They were a minority of new variants that could absorb the changes that were happening to our people.

In biology, human beings living at low altitudes can live at high altitudes, but it is stressful. Over time, the stresses select new variants among the next generation that enable the species to thrive, unstressed, in the new environment. But, it takes time. In 1790, voices were raised in America to eliminate slavery. At the time, it was too radical a change for the country to absorb. But, in 1862, the change was made. At the time of the Exodus, only Joshua and Caleb were capable of entering the Promised Land. But, forty years later, the whole people did.

Now, we come to Pesach cleaning. In order for change to happen, there has to be a sifting and a weeding out process. Some DNA will be conserved, some discarded. When the Romans destroyed the Temple, we had to adapt or disappear. That meant we had to decide what was precious and what was expendable in Judaism.

This was the work that the rabbis did over several hundred years. The rabbis had to be both innovative and conservative at the same time. Heifitz points out that evolution is actually far more conservative than it is innovative. The DNA difference between a chimpanzee and a human being is only 2%. In making this monumental change, 98% of the past was conserved!

So, the rabbis had to go through a similar process of what practices to keep as they were, which to keep but transform in some way to give them a new look and new meaning, and which to discard altogether. We no longer had the platform called the Temple. But, the rabbis had to ask: what’s the job the Temple does? And, can it be done by another delivery system?

And, Heifitz reminds us: not only did the rabbis have to discard practices. They had to discard memories. One of the most radical things that rabbis did was to canonize the Bible. That meant discarding many texts which were considered holy, and deciding – only these texts would be taken with us into the future as our holy book.

And, that is what we do when we clean our homes for Passover. We are acting out the process of change. Change always involves sifting through the stuff of our lives – our habits, our customs, our way of doing things, and our memories – and asking ourselves: What do we want to take with us into the future as our new selves? And, what are willing to leave behind?

Although, there is a catharsis in actually physically throwing things out, there is an aspect of this we can even do on our computers. Every so often, we are told that there is not enough memory left on our computer to absorb new information. What do we have to do? We have to delete memory! We have to go through old files and decide what memories we don’t need to take with us into the future – because they are blocking out the possibility of new growth. It’s not easy to do. But, that is the job of Passover cleaning.

It’s to remind us that in order to grow, we have to figure out – what is so essential to our core identity, that we must preserve it? And, what is not? My sister Risa and my brother in law David recently moved to Teaneck, New Jersey because three of their four married children and their children live there. To do that, they had to leave Boston, where they lived for 40 years. They had to leave a home they had lived in for 30 years. And, they had to leave jobs they had been in for a long time.

It was a very stressful move. But, they are sure they have done the right thing. They asked themselves, to be who we most are, to perpetuate the values that are most essential to us and to move into the future with those values intact, what do we have to leave behind? The house was a delivery system that could not compete with proximity to their grandchildren. So, the house was left behind. But, the family will flourish. Was what Risa and David did innovative or conservative? You tell me.

When we start to put the house above the family we are in trouble. Let’s begin to ask the question together: how can the Jewish family flourish in the future? Let’s start with Rabbi Kula’s wonderful idea of reframing the meaning of individual mitzvot, and trying out mitzvot that are new to us for 40 days, then discussing the impact on us together.

I’m confident that this process will create a community that is both newer and more traditional at the same time.