I’m searching for chametz on the morning of Asara BeTevet as thoroughly as if it were the night before Pesach when one does bedikat chametz (searching for leavened products). I get down on my hands and knees and look under the bookshelves. I shake out the blankets on my kids’ beds, peek under the bunk bed, and push the trundle back into place. I lay on my stomach on the living room carpet to see under the couch, but all I find are some dusty jacks and a few plastic screws from my son’s toy tools. I overturn the couch pillows, thrust my fingers between the cushions, and find nothing. The kids’ boots — where I once found my keys — are all empty; under them I find only a lone dirty tissue. In the kitchen, I check behind the bottles of seltzer on the floor next to the fridge, in the potato basket, and even in the 2.5 pound can of peanuts that my one-and-a-half-year-old likes to pull off its low shelf and sit on as a stool.
It is not cornflake crumbs I’m looking for, though I found a few of those, but rather the cream cheese sandwich that I made for my toddler to take to preschool yesterday morning. My one-and-a-half-year-old wandered into the kitchen while I was in the middle of making all four kids sandwiches, and hers was ready, so I gave it to her and told her to put it in her bag. She clutched the plastic sandwich bag and toddled out of the kitchen. Twenty-six hours later, we have yet to locate the elusive sandwich.
The tenth of the Hebrew month of Tevet is a national fast day to commemorate the siege laid on Jerusalem 2,500 years ago that eventually led to the destruction of the Temple. It’s not a day to comb through the house in an attempt to obliterate all leavened grain products. With four kids under age 8, I am usually exempt from fasting due to pregnancy or nursing. But fast days are about more than just refraining from food and drink. They are days of introspection and self-improvement.
It’s just about halfway between the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — when the year ahead looks so promising and I’m sure I’ll be a more adoring wife, a more attentive mother, and a more meticulous Jew — and Pesach.
Before last Pesach, I looked at my bare, scoured walls, toys and books neatly stacked on shelves, clothes folded in their closets, the refrigerator free from magnets and to-do lists, and I could almost see my reflection on the polished floor. I was exhausted, yet satisfied with my accomplishment. I had pushed myself to my limits, with the help of my husband and a little too much coffee, and achieved what I didn’t think possible, with the children still smiling. Realizing my real potential for creating a warm, happy home, I resolved to keep it that way. I figured the hard part is getting everything clean and in order; upkeep should only take a few weekly hours of scrubbing and straightening.
Walking down the street, holding hands with my oldest son, I asked him, “Did you see how clean I got the house?”
“Yeah, it’s so clean!” he answered excitedly, swinging our joined arms, blue eyes looking bigger than ever.
“Do you think I can keep it that way?”
He looked away, grin fading into a half-smile. “Eh…no,” he answered hesitantly. I sensed that he didn’t want to hurt my feelings by lessening my excitement. “I don’t think so.”
“Well,” I asserted, “I’m going to try.”
My son was right. As much as I try, doing six loads of laundry a week, washing two sinks full of dishes a day, and washing the floors at least once a week has not been enough to keep the house spotless. I haven’t succeeding in staving off the avalanche of two seasons’ worth of children’s clothing cascading from their closet, nor the piles of books, coloring books, and stickers that have relocated to their small table after a book-end fell off the edge of the wall-mounted shelf. Cards and puzzle pieces are mixed together in pink and blue baskets, and the second crib is full of outgrown clothing waiting to be stored and my daughter’s skirts with torn hems waiting to be mended. And this is just the kids’ room.
While I look around my messy house for the rotting sandwich (that I am so glad is sealed in a plastic bag), I look into myself. Although my children would have more room to play and might take less time to get dressed in the morning if my house were as clean as it was last Pesach (“No, put the shorts back and take sweatpants. It’s cold outside.”), I understand that a clean house is not the only factor in creating a happy home. I am more patient with my children than I was a year ago, or even last Pesach or Rosh Hashanah. I’ve started snuggling with each child in his or her bed each night, chatting one-on-one for a few minutes before they go to sleep, and our conversations are more pleasant at all times of the day. My husband comes home from work more often to a calm wife and four children finishing supper and less often to crying, kicking children and a wife sneaking chocolate in the kitchen. Yet, there are still days when I yell at my kids, rush them, shush them, completely failing to see the world from the perspective of a 7-year-old or 5-year-old. In Jewish texts, chametz, leaven, symbolizes arrogance. It is the lost sandwich rotting inside of me, my refusal to listen to others and accept them as they are.
How did I lose a whole sandwich? Two slices of multi-grain bread, smeared with low-fat cream cheese, cut in half, and tied up in a sandwich bag. What if I don’t find it? Will it fester, grow mold, and attract ants and cockroaches? Or will it simply liquefy into an indiscernible mush? Will I only discover it three months from now while cleaning for Pesach, hibernating in a secret refuge? What other sources of decay are lurking about in my house? In me?
Although the Fast of the 10th of Tevet is not a traditional time to search for physical chametz, it is a perfect day to look for “spiritual chametz,” character traits that need to be improved. If I can search this hard for chametz three months before Pesach, I can also search inside. Sometimes, it’s an alarm that wakes you up; sometimes it’s a missing sandwich.