Monday, April 2, 2012

Peeling away the layers of Pesach by Gila Lowell

As a kid, my questions about "why do we do weird stuff on Passover?" extended well beyond Seder night and mostly revolved around the Chabad stringencies. "But why do we have to peel the tomatoes and apples?" "Why do we have to waste time shelling the almonds if we can buy them already shelled and ground?" and so forth. The answer was always the same "because the Rebbe said so."

My family, baalei teshuva to Chabad from the FSU (former Soviet Union), never exhibited interest in the why. I suppose that's a generational gap. Notice that in the Hagadah, it's the child born post-exodus that asks the emancipated slave generation "why is this night different than all other nights?" The slaves never ask why because they do not have that right and it's actually perilous to their existence. They are programmed specifically not to think too much about the why because that could lead to other "dangerous" thoughts.

The question that occupies the mind of the slave generation is "how?" "How do I get through the day without being arrested?" "How do I get out of Russia alive?" "How do I learn more about how to practice being a Jew?" Why doesn't even begin. Only the generation born in freedom has the luxury and liberty to ask "why?" So as someone born and raised on the other side of the Iron Curtain, I was fixated on the “why”. And that “why” remained ignored and unsatisfied.

Then I grew up, got married and started building my own family and my own Passover sedarim and started exploring the “why”. And what I discovered with my husband was that all the "whys" of pesach come back to a common theme, to a single idea and image. It all comes down to dishes.

One of the most fundamental images that Kabbala conjures to explain the interaction between the spiritual and physical worlds is that of light and vessels. The light is the spiritual energy that animates and sustains physical life. The spiritual and physical have a symbiotic relationship despite having a hierarchy. The spiritual may be more powerful but its power is impotent without the physical to contain and convey it. Only water that is enclosed in some sort of receptacle can quench a person's thirst.

While the physical world was created to contain and support the spiritual, it also has the potential to conceal it, just as any content is supported and simultaneously concealed by its container. The purpose of life, according to Kabbala and Chasidus, is to create numerous and fitting vessels by harnessing the facets of the physical world, to receive the Divine light. This is the point of mitzvos (commandments) – using that which obscures the Divine, to reveal it.

But not all vessels are created equal – some facets of the physical world are more spiritually opaque and seem to be counterproductive to the quest for spirituality. The human ego, for example, is one such vessel. Man can use his feeling of independence and empowerment to assert his G-d given capabilities and be a creative force in the world, or to eclipse and banish G-d. When the vessels separate from their divine raison d'etre, they actually become accomplices of evil and exile G-d from the world. Food can either be viewed as a gift from G-d, and when consumed, actually shift man's focus towards his relationship with G-d; or if perceived as something solely physical/natural with no divine origin, it can become a means to gluttonously experience physical pleasure. If it is the latter, then it actually becomes a barrier between man and G-d.

This imagery is what guides the traditions and rituals of Passover. By switching our kitchens, changing the dishes, we're actually reframing our approach to the physical world and how we choose to let it interact with our spiritual reality. (This is also the backdrop behind the counting of the Omer and its culmination with Shavuos.) Our dishes, our vessels, while tangible, have a more ethereal side and embody our contact with the spiritual world and our spiritual selves.

Many of the Chabad Passover traditions revolve around the concept of receiving light in complete vessels. It is a Chabad custom to be selective about which three matzahs are used for seder night. They must be whole, without a crack (if possible) and not flat, but rather concave in shape. In other words, they must look like a vessel. (According to Kabbala the six food-symbols we place on top of the three matzahs are six spiritual lights.) The matzahs must represent the ability to hold the lights properly.

In fact, the use of three matzahs on seder night also comes to illustrate the matzahs' function as representing vessels. While there are several explanations for the three, one of the dominant ones is that each matzah represents a different tier of the Jewish people: Kohen, Levi, Yisrael. These tiers form the acronym KL"Y which is Hebrew for vessel. The Jewish people are the ultimate vessel for G-dly revelation in the world. What we are celebrating on Passover is not just succeeding to escape the discomforts of oppression but rather the commencement of our career as a physical nation that reveal G-d's presence in the physical world.

One of the most important steps to creating efficient vessels is clearing away blockages that take up the space within the vessels, in Kabbalistic language otherwise known as shells/husks (in Hebrew klipot). On Passover this is what chametz represents – that which obstructs our ability to serve as vessels. The chametz of the soul is the various psychological states that obstruct one's objectivity. Just as chametz can be made up of the five different grains, the soul too can have different types of chametz. These can be egotism, anxiety, anger, melancholy, fear. When these emotional states fill us, there is no room for anything else. They consume us and rob us of our capacity to make conscious decisions of how to use our abilities.

While one would testify that preparation for Passover induces these very states, it does so in order to make us take a good, hard look at our attitude towards these states and ask ourselves "what attitude do we want to have towards them?" Under pressure is where our masks come off and we meet the real us face-to-face. Do I justify myself when I lose my temper? Or do I want to get a handle on it? Does anxiety paralyze me? Do I want to break anxiety's reign over me? According to Chasidus, these are the thoughts we are meant to be fixated on as we search for cheerios and pretzels in the cupboards and corners. That's one of the underlying messages of the famous story about the Alter Rebbe and how his search for chametz in his one room home took all night. Every step he took looking for crumbs, prompted him to dig deeper to find the crumbs within.

While there is a concrete, legal definition for what constitutes physical chametz on Passover, the Chasidic customs widen that definition by taking spiritual factors into consideration. The Chasidic stringencies come not from some pedantic, hysterical notion but rather from a sensitivity to the immortal side of mere mortals. One of the ideas behind peeling the vegetables is destroying all the peels/shells. I'm not peeling tomatoes only because there may be residue of chametz on the peel (which is a rationale I heard once as a teen) but because the mystical (not legal/halachic) definition of the peel is chametz. As I peel the vegetables, I'm not doing it compulsively only because I'm afraid of some halachic infringement, but rather because I'm meditating on personal refinement and spiritual elevation, with each peel that falls away. As I'm peeling the potatoes for yet another potato kugel, I do not stand there as a slave cowering under a task master's whip – and that task master may be resentment, bitterness or fear – but rather as a free woman who rejoices at the chance to free herself of the shells/peels that come between her and her G-d.

A friend vented to me "do you know how much time we waste on Passover on food and dishes?" I looked at her and said "i don't think we waste that time. I think we invest it." As we prepare the neverending list of whats of Passover, it is imperative that we make time to invest in the whys and hows. How am i treating my spouse and my kids? How do I respond to different pressures and why? How is this mitzvah making me a better human being? A kosher Passover is not only defined by the external whats and hows, but just as much by the internal hows and whys. An internally kosher Passover is a truly happy Passover. May every one of us merit to experience that happiness this year.