Neurosis or Holiness? It’s Hard to Tell.

My rebbe says that there are two types of people in the world; the type of people who divide all the people in the world into two categories and the type that doesn’t. With that in mind I think that there are two types of people in the world; the type of people that believe strongly that just having your heart in the right place is good enough, those who think that the spirit of the law takes precedent, and the type of people that are passionate about the letter of the law, who demonstrate their love and excitement through attention to the most subtle details of practice. And ready or not, both of those people are coming to your seder.

Even before seder there is ample opportunity for each camp to champion it’s position. This time of year is a festival of details. There is literally no end to the zealous detail that a person can have in cleaning and preparing their home. Infusing those details with some “spirit of the law” can feel like a challenge. Our family has been blessed with the opportunity to be home for Pesach and host Seder for about 18 years now and during that time we have evolved our own systems and traditions for “turning over.” (1) While it might be true that my kids (read: cheap labor – hey, it’s the holiday of slavery, right?) might not LOVE the work of schlepping boxes from the basement to the kitchen and back again, they do love that we have a middle of the night pizza and movie intermission. My oldest son has a tradition of writing creative poems and cute insights on the covering to the cabinets we seal off. So instead of just writing, “Chametz” he’ll write something like, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Donut. Donut who? Donut eat me, I’m Chametz.” (That’s just crazy yeshiva boy humor!) Each of the kids have tasks that range from light duty to “builds character.” (I just realized, I’m literally a Jewish taskmaster. Huh.)

Organization is key to success with all of the details of preparation. My holy wife is blessed with a brain that is keyed into all these details and how to organize them. She has a notebook with a list of menus for meals over the holiday, who we have invited for what meal, who enjoyed what food, how many whatevers we have left over from last year and how many we need to buy this year, and so forth. Her notebook is everything from shopping lists to learned-the-hard-way advice (such as, Mordechai should wear shoes while kashering the countertops.) (2)

I know that it’s popular to complain about the work before the holiday with its burden of shopping and schlepping, but I kinda like it. I enjoy how the season resonates with a certain type of energy. I don’t love long lines at Seven Mile Market but I do love being together as a community that is all involved in the same type of activities. I admit I love the details. But I also enjoy trying to find the spirit within the law and use that to energize our holiday.

(I will interrupt this rather fanciful idea with a reality check – Passover is often stressful. Perhaps I admit too much here, but I admit to losing my temper from time to time. Just yesterday it felt like there were a million things to do and I was feeling overwhelmed with the list in my head and I found two of my sons engaged in an activity that fits somewhere between lollygagging and dillydallying and I raised my voice. Gaa. All right, I’ll get it next time. Next time I will lovingly encourage them to find some useful way they can participate in helping out. Next time I’ll just smile at their youthful silliness and chuckle as I send them to go ask their mom what else they can do. Next time I’ll be more mature and calm. Because LAST TIME I yelled. It wasn’t like the Styrofoam peanut incident, but it was yelling.)

This tension between being attentive to the details and still finding spirituality within the law is, I think, one of the great lessons of Sefer Vayikra. With the Torah reading this past Shabbos we begin one of the least understood books of Tanach. With all of its burning of fats and limbs and its discussion of impure and abominations the text seems a bit foreign to our 21st century sensitivities. One common approach to understanding the relevance of the sefer is to analyze the details of the laws and see within them the spirit of the law, and find applications for that lesson.

One mitzvah that is a fundamental building block in the laws of Korbanot (sacrifices) is the Mitzvah of pigul. Although the details of pigul are too complex to explain in this format, the basic idea is that if the kohein is thinking that he intends to eat or burn the sacrifice outside of its proscribed time or location then the sacrifice turns from an object that creates closeness between Israel and Hashem to something that creates distance if eaten. The fact is that nothing is observable in the action of the kohein or in the korban. As far as anyone can see everything should be fine. But the reality of the situation, in G-d’s eyes, everything is different. Whether it is a mitzvah or an aveirah to eat from this korban is completely determined by the thoughts, the inner world of the kohein. (3)

The idea that the reality of something is determined by thought and not by action is one of the most provocative idea in all of Torah to me. It certainly applies in the world of interpersonal mitzvoth and regular interactions with our family and colleagues. My favorite example – imagine you see someone walk into davening late – mitzvah or aveirah? It’s impossible to tell from the outside. Maybe he was up all night with the baby so his being here at all is a huge win on the mitzvah scale. You can’t tell.

With our Passover prep I think there is a corollary too. Attention to all these details – is this a neurosis? Is it religious fanaticism? Is it holy? I think that depends to a large degree on how the details become invested with the spirit of the law. And this I think is one of the great battles of religion. Do we think of the details for eating Afikoman but not appreciate the miracle of closeness to the Creator? Do we make sure to eat the Maror in full measure but not take a moment to think how our actions might cause bitterness for another?

May you all have a Passover that is filled with spirit, attentive to details, and where all your teenagers say, “Ma, what can I do to help?”

(1) For the uninitiated, since on Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) all our food is especially prepared in pots and utensils that we only use for the holiday, and since the entire kitchen has to be “kashered” (kosher-ized) for Passover before the cooking can begin, there is a lot of work as you “turn over” the kitchen from regular use to Passover use.

(2) Kashering or kosher-izing is a process that is filled with details, mostly around what material and item is made out of and how it is used. In this case, the granite countertops are prepared for Passover use by pouring boiling water on them. The first time I did it I was just wearing socks. Good times.

(3) The scholar will no doubt note that the Rambam understands that it is not sufficient for the kohein to think “outside its time or space” he must actually say his intention aloud. Nonetheless, the simple reading of the pesukim and of the majority of the mishnayos and gemaras on this mitzvah would indicate that simply with his intention the korban becomes pigul.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now one precious granddaughter.
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