|courtesy of Stephen Ticehurst|
Look up “preparing for Passover” on your favorite internet search engine, and you’ll find lots of advice. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, even napping gets its due. But it takes some digging down to find any reference to what I’d suggest is the most important aspect of Passover preparation: attending to the needs of the spirit.
Just as we have a period of preparation leading to the High Holy Days in the fall, it is appropriate that we spend some time getting ready for our spring festivals: Passover and, seven weeks later, Shavuot, are the “high holy days” of the second half of the Jewish year. We are now about as far as we can get in the calendar from Yom Kippur and the spiritual reckoning that comes with it; after the release and ribaldry of Purim, it is time to reset our internal compass, to focus once again on questions of ultimate importance. Spring cleaning isn’t only for the insides of our homes; stripping away the hametz, the leavening or puffiness, of our spirits brings its own considerable rewards.
Passover recounts the ancient tale of our people’s redemption from slavery in Egypt; our re-enactment of this tale each year in the form of the Passover Seder makes this the annual season of our redemption, too. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, also means “narrow places.” From what mitzrayim do we wish to free ourselves, and others? What changes must we make in order to get from here, to there?
This year, I thought it might facilitate the journey to create a course of study or meditation in the three weeks or so leading up to Passover. (I was directly inspired in this by my friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Holzman, spiritual leader of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, who for the last few years has developed a similar practice during the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) I shared this guide with my congregants in Mississippi and Colorado earlier this week, and now I share it with you. During these final days of Adar and as we enter the holy month of Nisan, as the moon wanes and then waxes again to its Passover fullness, I invite you to join me in engaging with and reflecting on words of wisdom from Torah and our sages, both ancient and contemporary.
Here is one to start on, from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s Preparing Your Heart for Passover:
The rabbis suggest that … leaven [the stuff that makes bread rise, the stuff we don’t eat during Passover] transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz, also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls this kind of hametz the “swollen sourness in our lives.”
And a few questions to send you on your way: Where is the hametz, the “swollen sourness” in your spiritual life? Why might hametz, which causes bread to rise, cause the spirit to shrink away from holiness and God? How might you begin to search out this metaphysical hametz of the spirit?