Digging for what’s real this Passover

Jewish law may not require all-out spring cleaning, but there's something liberating about emptying that closet
Reprinted with permission by Peter Mesnik.
Reprinted with permission by Peter Mesnik.

I once attended a class on Passover preparation taught by a rabbi who told his all-female audience that outside of the kitchen, the entire search for chametz, the leavened products we may not own during Passover, should take no longer than one hour, tops. Mind you, this was a rabbi speaking to women who had been going mano-a-mano with the business side of a scrubbing sponge for days. He was never seen or heard from again, undoubtedly whisked away into the Kosher Witness Protection Program.

Was the rabbi right? Who knows? Who cares? Whatever his bona fides as an expert in Jewish law, his words were sacrilege. Most traditional Jewish women I know are hard-wired to become a little neurotic about scrubbing and polishing their homes to within one matzah’s thickness of their lives until they are satisfied their homes are kosher for Passover. I agree that Passover cleaning often becomes an extreme exercise, yet I confess: I secretly enjoy this Passover clean-a-thon. Honestly, if I don’t give this place a working-over each spring, by the time Yom Kippur rolls around, I’ll strike the left side of my chest several extra times during the confessional, adding, “And for the sin of not giving away those too-tight shoes to Goodwill, and for the sin of allowing the dust bunnies in the closet to multiply like rabbits, spiking allergies in the entire family…”

Even though Passover cleaning is not meant to be a spring cleaning, I say, why not? Passover is about our liberation from slavery to freedom, and don’t professional organizers always preach about how liberating it is to whittle down our material possessions?

This year, I have shipped a dozen pair of ancient prescription glasses to the Lions Club, which recycles them for the needy nearsighted. I am gathering retired cell phones from all family members to another recycling program that will benefit our enlisted men and women. My daughter and I have donated an almost embarrassing amount of quality clothes and shoes to a group that distributes to the local needy. And when I’m not liberating myself from outdated or excess stuff, or cleaning, I’m thinking about or reading wonderful and profound essays about the true meaning of Passover.

As a kid, I never liked this holiday. I didn’t get the connection between eating hard, dry matzah and the concept of freedom. Wouldn’t freedom signify eating fluffy soft bread instead? Or sitting back and taking it easy? Well, no. What I only began to appreciate as an adult is that true freedom — and true happiness — comes from understanding who you are and what your purpose is. I also began to see that you can’t achieve those goals without accepting what my teacher and friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin calls “God’s blueprint for living.” That blueprint, set down in the Five Books of Moses, articulates a path for a life of morality, spirituality, meaning, possibly even transcendence. True freedom requires discipline. That’s such a foreign concept in today’s society, where following your feelings has made almost everything else subservient. Who agrees with me that the results of this have not been pretty?

I can’t begin to imagine what my ancestors endured as literal slaves in Egypt, nor the terror and barbarism that my much more recent ancestors suffered in pogroms and concentration camps of Eastern Europe. The words that we read in the Haggadah every year, that in every generation enemies rise up to try to kill us, unfortunately continue to have special resonance. Thousands of Jews are leaving France, their home for generations, and they will surely be followed by Jews who no longer feel safe in long-established communities in places such as Manchester, England, Brussels, Belgium, and a growing list of cities.

But Jews remain a people of hope and optimism. The last song we sing at the Passover seder is “Next year in Jerusalem.” We keep our vision and prayers directed toward the place that God promised us and where He took us, in a very roundabout way to be sure. We began as a ragtag group of former slaves, only to become the first nation in history whose peoplehood was defined based on a covenant with God.

So I really don’t mind all the cleaning and de-cluttering. It gives me time to remind myself about what truly matters, which is my relationship with God and the enormous gifts I have as a Jew. It gives me time to remind myself that the disciplined path to freedom sometimes starts by wading into an overstuffed closet until it splits like the Red Sea, and tossing out material and egotistical clutter until we reconnect with the essentials.

About the Author
Judy Gruen writes about culture, family, Jewish growth, and why bad contractors happen to good people. The author of four books, her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and 10 book anthologies. She is a regular columnist on, and her most recent book "Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping." She is an active member of Aish HaTorah Los Angeles.
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