Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Cleaning the Home, Cleansing the Soul

Leading up to Pesach, Jews everywhere scramble, utilizing all their energy to thoroughly clean  their possessions, whether chometz could have entered there or not. The drive to wash and vacuum every part of the house and clean every closet is widespread, even in instances where it is not halachically mandated. Where did this minhag originate from? The customs of a nation that instinctively follows the truth is worth studying.

A story is told about the first Bobover Rebbe, who visited the home of a wealthy follower to solicit a donation for his bais medrash. It was prior to Pesach and the rebbe sensed too much calm in the home. Although there were servants and maids everywhere, the home was lacking the feeling that is felt in every Jewish home before Yom Tov.

The wealthy philanthropist explained to the rebbe that he owned a special Pesach house, where he and his family lived only during the eight days of Pesach. “That way, we don’t have to go crazy cleaning the mansion. We sell the chometz in this house and move into a separate mansion and experience Yom Tov there with a minimum of aggravation.”

The rebbe disapproved. “My grandfather, the holy Divrei Chaim of Sanz, would say that the mitzvah is not to have a clean, chometz-free home. The mitzvah is to rid the chometz from your home, as the posuk states, ‘Tashbisu se’or miboteichem.’”

Great tzaddikim cherished the effort engendered by this mitzvah. They saw the sweat, brought on by the toil to destroy chometz, as purifying waters.

The connection between the labor and exertion of bedikas chometz and the enduring struggle against evil is referenced in Chazal, who compare the yeitzer hora to se’or shebe’isah, the layer of chometz in the dough. Chometz represents immorality, and by eradicating it, we undergo a profound spiritual cleansing.

On a night that was a turning point for a nation, a young man faced the turning point of his own life. The well-known story of that leil bedikas chometz in a bochurim’s dirah in Geulah, and how the decisions made that evening gave Klal Yisroel a supremely effective mashpia, is recounted in the introduction to Haggadah Tiferes Shimshon. The Haggadah, which shares the Torah of Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l and shines a bright light in many homes, opens with Rav Shimshon’s memories of leil bedikas chometz in his Brisker dirah.

Unlike his dirah-mates, who had returned home to America for Yom Tov, Shimshon was in the empty dirah alone for Yom Tov. He painstakingly set out to perform the bedikah in the apartment on his own, working to the point of exhaustion to fulfill the mitzvah.

Then, as Rav Shimshon later related, he finally sat down, well past midnight, drained but content. “Suddenly, I jumped up when I remembered the attic!” he recalled. “There is no one to check the attic!”

The building had a common roof space that was used by various neighbors. The bochur knew that none of the other neighbors would see to the task, and he wondered if perhaps he was potur, since he wasn’t the sole resident.

“But I recalled the explicit words of the Shulchan Aruch that one must check an attic, and I understood that this was the work of the yeitzer hora, who was trying to dissuade me.”

He climbed the rickety ladder to the roof, the question growing stronger with each step: “Why am I obligated if there are many renters here?” He ignored his exhaustion and pushed through, but when he turned on the light, he was shocked.

It appeared that the attic hadn’t been cleaned in years. The walls were covered in dust and grime, making a bedikah impossible. Shimshon headed back down, returning with a pail of water. He got to work, removing the collected grime of several years.

The doubts continued throughout the long night. The yeitzer hora tried to convince the bochur that he was working beyond his capabilities when he wasn’t even obligated. What kind of Seder would he have if he is sick with fatigue? Shimshon persevered. Dawn was painting the sky pink while he still clutched a candle.

Erev Pesach was a busy day, and Shimshon barely had time to catch his breath before the Seder. He fought to keep his eyes open during Kiddush, but, suddenly, he felt a spark within.

“I suddenly experienced a new sweetness in the mitzvos, as if a bright light was shining within me,” he remembered. “I tasted a new flavor in each word of Maggid, and in the matzoh. I felt a closeness to Hashem that I’d never before experienced.”

The intensely elevating feeling remained with him throughout the night and into Chol Hamoed. He kept waiting for it to leave, as suddenly as it had come, but it remained with him through the second part of Yom Tov and never left.

“If I have accomplished anything,” he concluded, “it is in the merit of that mitzvah derabonon that I performed with such sacrifice that night.”

The toil and sweat of bedikas chometz gave us the likes of Rav Shimshon Pincus, but if that great rosh yeshiva and mashpia felt that the story was worth repeating, it wasn’t to celebrate his own accomplishments, but because he felt it is relevant. He wanted his listeners to appreciate the profound spiritual significance of the act and, more importantly, the connection between cleaning a home and cleansing the soul.

Rav Pincus wanted his audience to appreciate the potential of the mitzvah - not an inconvenience, but a tremendous opportunity.

Sadly, Rav Pincus tragically returned that Divine gift he received as a bochur on the same night many years later. He lost his life on the eve of bedikas chometz in a horrific car accident. The message - and point - endure.

We need to approach this season with a profound awareness of the chances we have to become more elevated and more spiritually sensitive individuals.

There is a deeper dimension to the mitzvah of bedikas chometz, according to the Rokeiach, who reveals that every bit of exertion for this mitzvah creates a malach in shomayim. What is so unique about biur chometz that every single component of the cleansing creates a malach?

Perhaps a story related by Rav Shlomo Wolbe can shed light on this.

After arriving in America from the Shanghai refuge during the Holocaust, Rav Leib Bakst, later to become the famed rosh yeshiva in Detroit, encountered a prominent rebbe, who asked Rav Leib about his great rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz. Rav Leib discussed the mashgiach’s sainted ways and messages, and the rebbe nodded appreciatively. Rav Bakst then shared a shmuess from his rebbi about the depth and potency of evil, which lurks within man, ready to entrap him.

After hearing the shmuess, the rebbe said, “The mashgiach was certainly a tzaddik, but our way is so different than that of the mussar personalities. Why spend so much time engaged with sin, the darker side of man’s behavior, the yeitzer hora? Here there is jealousy, desire and pettiness. Mussar is obsessed with the bad. We prefer to focus on the grandeur and greatness of man, his abilities and potential, rather than studying and probing his negative character traits. Through raising the level of my followers by speaking of Elokus and lofty spiritual matters, automatically the small frailties that afflict humans are overcome and fall away. Why not speak about the royal and divine, rather than stains and blemishes?”

Rav Leib took the rebbe’s words to heart, and when he had the opportunity, he shared them with the revered mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, asking him what he should answer the rebbe.

“Tell him about Sassoon’s house,” the mashgiach curtly replied.

Sassoon was a wealthy Sephardic merchant who had settled in Shanghai, China, where he purchased a beautiful, flat, vacant plot of land upon which to build a house. He erected a magnificent mansion there and moved in, enjoying the spacious layout and impressive décor.

Within a short time, he sensed that something wasn’t right. The structure seemed to be sinking. He called the construction crew, who worked to set the building right, firming up the foundation. Everything seemed okay for a while. Then the house started to sink again and Sassoon called in a team of engineers to investigate.

Their exploration turned up some history. Years earlier, the municipality of Shanghai had transferred all its waste to a central location, which became a dumping ground for the garbage of the locals. In time, the city found another location and decided to sell the large piece of empty land, which was prime real estate. They covered the tract with piles of sand and the attractive parcel was soon snapped up. Sassoon was the buyer.

The unfortunate industrialist was stuck with a beautiful home on inferior ground, and his palatial residence was virtually useless.

Rav Chatzkel was explaining Rav Yeruchom’s mussar with the pithy story. A palace of emunah cannot be erected on a garbage dump. Only when a person successfully purges his heart is he ready to build.

Bedikas chometz and the inherent cleansing is the mussar before we move on to the Seder, when we will set out to build with a newfound clarity in emunah.

Like a newborn infant, who emerges and suddenly begins a dizzying process of development, each week bringing new skills and abilities, our nation was reborn at the time of yetzias Mitzrayim. They came out and were directed on to a path. The geulim would become avdei Hashem, which was the entire purpose of their redemption, and merit “taavdun es ha’Elokim al hahar hazeh,” accepting the Torah on Har Sinai. Their liberation began on Pesach, but it wasn’t complete until Shavuos, when they were given the Torah and became truly free.

A people drowning in the quicksand of tumah were suddenly released, living the fulfillment of a promise that Hashem made to Avrohom Avinu at the bris bein habesorim. Even if they themselves weren’t completely worthy of liberation, their grandfather Avrohom had earned it for them.

The seforim teach us that the koach of the original miracle that led to the establishment of a Yom Tov reappears each year anew at that time. Pesach is celebrated as a zeicher l’Yetzias Mitzrayim, commemorating the nissim of geulah leading up to and including the end of the Mitzri experience. But inherent as well in these days is the ability to experience geulah once again in our time. B’Nissan nigalu ub’Nissan asidin lehigoel.

Chazal formulated the Haggadah to begin with the Jewish people at a low point and progress to the high point of geulah. Maschil b’genus, we begin with the shame of our lowly beginnings, umesayeim b’shvach, and conclude with the triumphant ending of our elevation to the status of princes. This message reinforces our commitment to toil and work to raise ourselves from our present station and catapult ourselves into a new era, one that would make us deserving of redemption from golus through the coming of Moshiach.

In this season, we are given blocks, and it is up to us to assemble them in a formation that will allow us to grow. We begin prior to Pesach ridding our homes of chometz, which is a lesson to us to remove the chometz from our hearts. We look in nooks and crannies, making sure that there is nothing that resembles chometz anywhere, a prompt to rid our hearts and souls of any remembrance of bad middos and chatoim. After all, one cannot build on inferior soil.

Our valiant womenfolk, in whose merit we were redeemed in the first place, work to wash the walls and clean out cabinets, laboring beyond the parameters of halachah to ensure that we will arrive at one of the greatest nights of the year as meritorious as malochim.

On that glorious night, we sit as bnei melochim surrounded by our families, retelling the story of our forefathers and doing all we can to merit the hashpaah, which saved them, to allow us to achieve our own personal geulah. We are so confident that we have reached that level that we are commanded to view ourselves as geulim, as the Haggadah mandates us to view ourselves as if we ourselves just left Mitzrayim.

The lofty levels we achieved through our search for chometz are hinted to in our choice of dress, the sacred kittel, which some compare to the garment of the kohanim in the Bais Hamikdosh. This indicates our belief that we have become as worthy as those servants of Hashem with our own golus avodah of remembering His name that night.

The sparkling white of the garment also hints at the posuk in Koheles which states, “Bechol eis yihiyu vegodecha levonim - Your clothing should be white at all times” (9:8). This is a reminder that having completed the process of searching for impurity in our homes and hearts, we must not become complacent, but rather constantly examine ourselves to be sure that we are indeed clean.

The process continues with the shirah of the second half of Yom Tov and the steady spiritual ascent of Sefiras Ha’omer, culminating in Shavuos.

Rav Yehuda Tzadka, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, used this concept to explain a Gemara in Maseches Nedorim (49) which tells how Rabi Yehuda bar Ilai suffered headaches as a result of the obligation to drink four kosos on leil Pesach. The Tanna endured painful headaches from Pesach until Shavuos, says the Gemara.

The rosh yeshiva explained the inner dimension of this Gemara as an indication of the inherent connection between the avodah which begins on Pesach and peaks at Shavuos. He pointed out that the first of the four kosos corresponds to the guarantee of Vehotzeisi, Hashem’s assurance that He would remove the Bnei Yisroel from servitude, which took place on Rosh Hashonah, six months before the actual redemption.

The next two kosos, which correspond to Vehitzalti and Vegoalti, took place on the actual night of Yetzias Mitzrayim, when Hashem saved His people from Paroh and redeemed them. Everything had been realized - everything except the fourth kos, the cup that corresponds to the lashon of Velokachti eschem li le’om. Hashem would only take the nation as His own at the time of Mattan Torah, seven weeks after the redemption.

“Do you understand?” Rav Tzadka would say, banging on the table. “The Jew received a check, a promise to receive the Torah, but the check doesn’t come due until seven weeks after Pesach, when he actually receives it.”

Thus, the Tanna felt the effects of the Seder until he saw the realization of the process it had spawned with the giving of the holy Torah. He then experienced a wellspring of healing and light in which to immerse himself.

The Seder doesn’t just begin a process. It itself creates the process. The Sefas Emes says that the ceremony is called “Seder” because it establishes the order for the entire year. It is then that the Jew shines brightly, at his best, and it is that identity that will bring about the hashpa’ah of geulah that comes his way during the year ahead.

Perhaps therein lies the exceptional power of the Seder. Speak to people of any background and you will see that, more often than not, their most cherished childhood memories involve this night. The Seder, which commemorates events seared into the collective soul of our nation, is also the event seared into the individual souls of our people.

Some associate the memories with food, others with songs or décor, but what they are really saying is, “It is when we felt alive, connected, and part of something bigger than ourselves.” The Seder, when properly conducted, is a thrilling experience. Ordinary people sense that there is something flowing through them. They identify the timeless mandate to transmit, from generation to generation, the truth we behold. A long line of fathers stretching back to Mitzrayim looks down at our Sedorim, as another generation is being welcomed and attached to the chain that stretches through the ages.

One year before Pesach, a young man asked Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach if it was permissible to perform bedikas chometz using a flashlight. Responding, Rav Shach asked him how his father conducts the search for chometz. The man answered that his father used the light of a candle.

The aged rosh yeshiva said to him, “If your father does bedikas chometz with a candle, why would you think to do it with a flashlight?”

The young man replied that people say that with a flashlight, one is able to better examine cracks and crevices, as it provides a clearer light.

With a wave of his hand, Rav Shach peered at him quizzically and said, “Do you really think you can see better than your father?”

On this night, we look deep within ourselves and inspect how we compare to the past. Would the fathers to whom we asked the Mah Nishtanah, and the fathers to whom they turned, have nachas from us? Do our Sedorim stand up to the test of so many generations to whom we owe our existence? This, too, is a part of the process; the engagement of generations that is a crucial part of the Seder.

Rav Michel Feinstein, son-in-law of the Brisker Rov, suffered greatly during his life. Someone once asked him from where he derived the strength to withstand so many tribulations. He responded that he knows that his father-in-law is watching from heaven to see how he will react and respond. “I know that my sainted shver is looking at me, watching to see if I will succumb and become dejected or manage to maintain my usual demeanor. The fact that I knew that I was being tested gave me the ability to persevere.”

The Brisker Rov, who endured so much hardship and pain, expected his own children to follow his path. The expectation and faith that fathers have in their children are the cornerstone of our success as a people of mesorah.

Grasp the candle tightly. It represents the search for impurity and illuminates the path to spiritual fulfillment, representing the fusion of Torah and mitzvos. The light of Torah endures. It has remained lit through so many generations, so many lands, and so many travails.

It reveals the path going back to those who came before us, but it also sheds light on the future, reminding us of the great day when Hashem will “search Yerushalayim with candles” (Tzefania 1:12), locating every last Jew from wherever he is, finding every soul who maintains some connection to the realm of kedushah, and marching us home once again, a nation of geulim returning, this time forever. 


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