Harold Berman

What they didn’t tell us when we left Egypt

My wife is staring into an oven and I’m tearing paper towels for her. It’s that time of year again. You know – the season of our freedom, the time when the Jews left Egypt in a miraculous deliverance, the foundational moment when we became a people. Nowhere else in the sacred scripture of any religion does God speak to an entire people at once, or redeem them so spectacularly and miraculously. For thousands of years, long before Charlton Heston was around to play Moses, we’ve been recounting this greatest story ever told at our Seder tables.

Then there’s Pesach cleaning. Yup – buried in the Torah’s transformational, life-changing drama about leaving Egypt is that little detail: not only are we not to eat chametz (leavened product) during the holiday, but we are forbidden to possess it. Not even a little. Not a few crumbs on the table. Not in the corner of a drawer. Not in the very back of the oven. Nothing.

Oven fire
Representative Pesach Cleaning
(not the author and his wife)

No one happened to mentioned this when I started becoming observant, or even when my wife began to think about converting to Judaism. I have such vivid memories of when we first began to explore Judaism – the Shabbat dinners where an unfathomable warmth saturated the room, that first Shabbat morning service at an Orthodox synagogue where over 400 people prayed and sang together with a depth of spirit I had never before encountered, the Torah study sessions that revealed new worlds, and the people we met who lived the Torah’s values and inspired us to want to be like them.

But cleaning the oven for Pesach? Apparently, no one thought of it as a selling point. Nor a few other aspects of the observant life.

I’m envisioning, for example, a Chabad rabbi trying to engage a Jew who grew up without any religious practice. Imagine him saying to this wary soul, “Start with Yom Kippur. The services are the longest of the year. Hours and hours and hours of them. And you get to fast all day. And when you’re done with that, I’ve got a few other fasts for you – Tisha b’Av, where you get to mourn the destruction of the Temple. And the Fast of Gedaliah, the Fast of Tevet, the Fast of Esther, the Fast of Tammuz. When you’re done with the fasts, there are a couple of periods during the year when, for various reasons, we don’t get haircuts and don’t listen to music. And we don’t carry anything on Shabbat – you’ll want to be very careful about that one. Oh, and in the several weeks before Pesach, make sure you clean your house thoroughly – including your oven.”

Need I explain why those involved in outreach work have not rushed to embrace this approach? Shabbat dinners, Torah study, and amazing people are no doubt a more sure-fire way to arouse interest.

But when all is said and done, the oven still needs to be cleaned. And truthfully, despite the momentary drudgery, that’s not such a bad thing. Life, like Judaism, is about peak moments, but it’s not only about peak moments. The sacred sits side by side with the mundane. And our task is not to flee from the mundane, but rather to take it in hand and infuse it with the sacred.

After the Exodus, when we stood at Mount Sinai, it wasn’t enough that Moses ascended the mountain and experienced God’s presence. He had to come back down the mountain, bringing God’s commandments to earth.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in Halakhic Man, beautifully describes what it means to be a person who lives by Halakhah-Jewish law: “Instead of yearning to rise from below to above, from earth to heaven, from the images and shadows of reality to the plenitude of a lofty existence . . . the Halakhah occupies itself with the lower realms. When halakhic man pines for God, he does not venture to rise up to Him but rather strives to bring down His divine presence into the midst of our concrete world.”

And so, I’ll take all of it – the warm Shabbat dinners and the fasts, the most lofty moments of prayer and the early mornings I really don’t want to get out of bed to pray, the Seders and the Pesach cleaning. All of it is good. All of it is holy – or at least can be if we approach it correctly.

Still, we may hire someone to help with the oven next year.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.
Related Topics
Related Posts