Congregation Etz Hayim at Hollis Hills Bayside

The consolidated communities of Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center and Marathon Jewish Community Center

>Shabbat Shemini/Parah 5771

For the obsessive-compulsive among us, the next month on the Jewish calendar is one long field day. With Pesah soon to arrive, we start cleaning, and cleaning, and cleaning some more. The night before the seder, as Erev Pesah begins, we are even so obsessed as to go into all the rooms we’ve cleaned and scrubbed, put out bread crumbs, and walk around with a feather, a wooden spoon and a Hanukkah candle (!) to “find” the last remnants of hametz that we will destroy the next morning.

If we think this behavior borders on OCD, consider the special Maftir reading on this Shabbat Parah. We find a detailed description of the way the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, was prepared, in order to purify those who had come in contact with a corpse. This part of the Torah expresses a curious obsession with death, the impurity that results from being near it, and the ritual of purification to overcome it. The rabbis instructed us to read it in the weeks leading up to Pesah to remind us to get obsessive; that is, to make sure we are in a state of ritual fitness in order to “eat the Passover Sacrifice,” or in our day, go to a seder.

But maybe the reason we get crazy about cleaning–purifying our homes, if you will–before Pesah is that we aren’t sufficiently concerned about it the rest of the year. I am not suggesting that we give up hametz all year round! But constant awareness of hametz might make it easier to remove it for Pesah, sparing us the frenetic lunacy that often precedes the Festival. How so? The Talmud (Bavli Berakhot 17a) tells us what Rabbi Alexandri used to say when he finished his private ‘Amidah: “Master of the Universe: You know that it is our desire to do your will. What stands in our way? It is se’or sheba’isah–leaven in the dough.” Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator, explains that this means yetzer hara’, the inclination to do evil, that causes us to become “leavened,” “puffed up.”

Hametz, then, is a symbol of arrogance, an over-inflated sense of self. And that’s not just unhealthy in the month of Nisan; it is perpetually problematic. Yes, the special reading of Shabbat Parah reminds us to approach Pesah with a special focus on ritual and spi-ritual fitness. Yes, we should clean our homes before Pesah. But if we pay attention to the hametz in our lives all year, we can make our pre-Pesah motto “Obsess Less!”