What If the Cleaning Isn't the Point?
Re-envisioning what it means to be prepared for Pesach
Like many people, I find the period leading up to Pesach to be deeply stressful. However, I think my reason might be different than it is for most. The cleaning and kashering themselves, while time consuming, are mostly manageable. Instead, it’s the way that the narrative around Pesach preparation seems to escalate every year. People seem to start preparing earlier and earlier, check more and more meticulously for chametz—even in places it was never brought—and talk about those preparations with a mix of exasperation and pride. For some reason, Pesach cleaning has become a competitive sport. The fear of chametz looms large, as do the many stringencies that pile up so high that they threaten to topple those who are trying to keep them.
Certainly, Pesach is one of the most important moments of the Jewish year. In the first chapter of Pesachim, the gemara tells us that we must begin learning the rules of Pesach 30 days in advance, in order that we should be prepared for the holiday. But the gemara is focused on the spiritual and intellectual work—the learning and the teaching of the laws of Pesach, the absorption of the lessons of what it means to become free.
I think that part of this communal anxiety comes from a fundamental disagreement of what our focus should be on when we enter Pesach, and two different versions of a core piece of the haggadah speak to this tension. Let us turn, then, to the parable of the four children.
These children, who appear at the beginning of the Magid section of the haggadah, have inspired endless interpretations, artistic renderings, and pedagogical problems for centuries. Each child’s question comes from a citation of a verse in the Torah, and three of the four answers have Torah sources as well. Despite their briefness, however, they are a popular discussion topic at our table. Every year at my family’s seder, my Aunt Nancy (reasonably) fumes about the wicked child, and what sort of parent would choose to label their child as such. Frequently, we have debates about the child who does not know how to ask. Are they ignorant? Disengaged? Too young to understand? But here, I’d like to focus on the other two children—the wise child, and the simple child.
The wise child asks what seems like an appropriately complicated question. He cites D’varim 6:20, asking, “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?” The haggadah tells the parents to respond with the laws of Pesach, down to the law of the Afikomen. The simple child, in contrast, says only two words, from Shemot 13:14: “What’s this?” And the parents respond by citing the rest of that verse, saying, “With the strength of [God’s] hand did Hashem take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves.” Pedagogically, these answers seems to fit the questions. The wise child asks a complicated question; he gets a complicated answer about the proper applications of the restrictions and requirements of the moment. The simple child asks a basic question; he is given an answer that contextualizes the larger Pesach experience by bringing a single sentence that can encompass the whole point of the holiday.
The Talmud Yerushalmi in Pesachim 10:4, however, brings a different tradition about the four children. Instead of calling the third child tam, simple, it calls him tipesh, often translated as stupid or foolish. The third child becomes more aggressive in his ignorance, not simply unknowing, but perhaps also uncurious. And while the wise and foolish children ask the same questions in the Yerushalmi as they do in our haggadah, they receive each other’s answers. The foolish child receives a rundown of the laws of Pesach, down to the afikomen. He is either unable to or uninterested in grasping the larger point of Pesach, so we just tell him the rules in order that he should not come to violate them inadvertently. The wise child, however, is simply told, “With the strength of [God’s] hand did Hashem take us out from Egypt, from the house of slaves.”
I love this Yerushalmi more and more every time I return to it. Often, in our society, we assume that wisdom comes from books, that whoever has assimilated more information must have the most wisdom. And I love books! I have found much wisdom and joy in books; I have chosen to devote my life to studying and teaching them. But even I must admit that sometimes the books aren’t enough. While they can teach us the how, sometimes we have to look elsewhere for the why.
According to the Yerushalmi, one who is wise will come to understand the reason for Pesach—that God took us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and took us to freedom. The true meaning of the holiday doesn’t come from memorizing each of the halakhot, or from checking our bathrooms for chametz, but instead, in thinking what it means that the Israelites were freed from bondage, and that those of us who are lucky enough to be free now can trace our freedom back to that moment. I say this not to criticize those who are particularly scrupulous in their physical preparations for Pesach, which can a labor of love, a religiously meaningful act, and also a way to connect to a chain of ancestors who prepared before us. I just worry that sometimes, all of that preparation makes us too exhausted to experience the awe that is supposed to come on seder night, when we finally get to become free. Sometimes, we have become so concerned about being burdened by chametz that we have lost the lightness and gratitude that should come with our liberation.
Until a few years ago, my family used the Feast of Freedom haggadah. Its illustration of the four children is a collage of four colors. Each of the children has a base color, but contains the other three colors as well. The illustrator reminds us that none of us are only one thing. Instead, some of each of these children lie inside of us. Sometimes we need to focus on the minutiae of the laws, sometimes we need to take a step back and remember the reason behind all of those commandments.
This is a hard moment to celebrate freedom. With war in Ukraine, Covid still mutating and killing, and a mass shooting in my city yesterday, it is easier to identify all of the ways that the world is far from liberation. And yet, we are commanded to release those burdens, if only for a moment, and remember how miraculous it is that we have reached this place. The miracle is not that we found the chametz under the couch, or properly kashered the kitchen, or that we found a dessert recipe that doesn’t taste like Pesach. Instead, it is that we are here, together even if we are apart, and that we are free. May this year be the year when we truly merit to be redeemed, and to redeem the whole world.
Chag kasher v’sameach.
I could not agree morè
Great article, thank you!