Friday, April 7, 2017

Cleaning for Passover: Don't be a fanatic!

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, once got so caught up in an obsession about getting rid of chometz (leavening) before Passover that it almost drove him crazy.  During Passover, not only is it forbidden to eat chometz, it is forbidden to own it or derive any benefit from it at all.  So he started worrying about whether or not there would be chometz in the water used during the festival.  What if someone had dropped a piece of bread down the well?  That could taint the whole water supply.  Even the tiniest bit of chometz would render the water unusable for the whole eight days of the festival.

After much deliberation and minute examination of every possible halachic detail, Rebbe Nachman finally came to the conclusion that the only way to be absolutely, positively sure there was no chometz in the water would be to camp out next to a spring in the woods where the water bubbled up fresh and uncontaminated.  The problem was, the only such spring was a long way from his home.  If he went there, then he would be away from his family, his friends, his disciples, and the whole Jewish community.  Was that any way to celebrate a festival?

In the end, Rebbe Nachman decided that such ultra-strictness was unnecessary, even on Passover.  Being overly rigid killed the joy and led to depression.  Don’t be a fanatic, he taught, and do not worry yourself sick with unnecessary restrictions. “The Torah was given to human beings, not the ministering angels.”

That’s good advice.  And lest you think this obsession with “the letter of the law” is limited to Orthodox Jews, let me assure you that it occurs among secular people also.  Rebbe Nachman’s lesson came to mind a while back when I received an email about a vegan woman who had decided to take her practice to the ultimate ethical vegan level and refuse to eat anywhere meat, fish, eggs, or dairy were being served.  Basically, this meant hanging out only with other vegans in vegan restaurants, vegan homes, or at vegan events.

This ultra-strictness also resulted in her walking out on a reunion of family and friends that she had really been looking forward to, because they were serving meat. It was not enough that the organizers were willing to provide her with a vegan meal. Unless everyone there refused meat, the entire event was, to mix cultural metaphors, not kosher.

Many people in the vegetarian community probably lauded her utmost devotion to the cause. But if I were to do that, it would mean never eating with anyone but my wife.  We are vegetarians (not vegans) and we live in a rural area where most of my family, neighbors and associates are not vegetarians, let alone vegans.  If I followed that woman's advice to the letter, I would end up in an isolated social bubble, not unlike what would have happened if Rebbe Nachman had decided to camp out next to the spring in the forest during Passover.

It was this kind of fanaticism that Rebbe Nachman warned against.  Yes, we must clean house, search out all leaven and remove it, change the kitchen utensils over to the Passover set, etc.  But don't drive yourself insane doing it.  Don't make it a burden that kills the joy of the holiday.

This is why we have the bitul chametz procedure for declaring any leaven we might have missed to be null and void.  This is not a mere legality.  The rabbis who enacted this rule long ago were aware of the human tendency to obsess over things. There is always the possibility that we missed a bread crust the kids dropped somewhere.  Or maybe a guest you invited for the Seder isn't as thorough as you are, and dropped some crumbs from his pocket on the living room rug.  Or a mouse stored grain in the walls of your house... A person can go on and on about this kind of worry.

However, if we have done due diligence to remove all the leaven we know about, then renounced all ownership of what we might have missed, then dayenu, enough. Time to move on and celebrate!

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