Completely Change How You Think About Passover Cleaning

A Bit of Background

I am not a very tidy person. I also don’t keep kosher for Passover (for now). So the whole idea of cleaning for Passover  is a bit anathema to me. However, like all things Jewish, it inspires me. It is full of rich wisdom that helps us manage the anxieties inherent in being human.

Passover is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ exit from slavery in Egypt. It’s origin story is generally pretty well known. It’s the one with Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea. For us Jews, it’s one of the biggies.  

Jews today observe Passover by gathering with family and having a meal together. But not just any meal. The Passover meal, known in Hebrew as a “seder,” is...different. What makes that night different from all others, you might ask (and you wouldn’t be the only one asking)?

 The matza, or unleavened bread

The matza, or unleavened bread

Quite a few things, actually. But I’d like to focus on the one about eating unleavened bread (matza, in Hebrew).

On Passover, we forgo bread, and not in a Paleo kind of way. Trust me, there’s plenty of other carbs on the table (hello, potato kugel!). But none of them rise up in a bready, leavened kind of way. The rule is that for the Passover seder, and the following eight days of observance, Jews do not eat any leavened bread (known as chametz in Hebrew). No pretzels, no cookies, no muffins, you get the idea.

We do this to remember that the Israelites had to run from Egypt so quick that they didn’t have time to wait around for their baked goods. They just slapped some unrisen dough on their backs and let it bake in the sun while they ran. Honestly, the forethought here is amazing to me. Can you imagine? “Yes, Moses, we are going, we are going, but not without a snack!” Is this the origin of the Jewish mother always needing to feed the family? Perhaps, perhaps. But I digress.

This unrisen dough, once baked by the sun, was like a cracker. In Hebrew, it’s known as matza. It’s one of the most important and recognizable symbols of Passover.

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For more observant Jews, the weeks leading up to Passover are a frenzy of cleaning as they rid the home of any trace of chametz. There is to be no leavening anywhere!  Could this be the origin of spring cleaning? Perhaps, perhaps.

This time of year finds Jews the world over scouring the home, hunting down any bit of bread or crumb or Cheerio or Oreo (or Hydrox, more likely) that has tucked itself away somewhere. I remember learning that we are supposed to go through the home with candle and a feather during this search -- the candle to illuminate and the feather to dust the chametz away. I’m not certain that part of the tradition accurate, but I like the image.

I don’t know much more about it than that. Like I said before, I am not particularly drawn to cleaning nor have I historically kept the Passover rules. I just like to think on them. So now that the background is out of the way...

What does any of this MEAN?

This ritual gives us plenty to think about. Here are three of the ideas that struck me as I considered the tradition:

  1. Clean the home, clean the mind: I often tell clients in the therapy room that doing the work of self-examination is an exercise in excavation. We turn inward, look around in all the corners and crevices, and shine a light upon what is hiding in the corners and crevices. We hold a candle to whatever we find in those corners. We may get rid of it altogether, if we learn that it is no longer welcome. For example, a client has the habit of always saying yes when asked to do something even if she doesn't have the time or desire. As we walk through her memories, we find that father left her family when she was young. Now we shine a light upon her belief that people leave if you refuse their requests. Is this a belief that she wants to hold on to? Does it serve her now? Or do we gently dust it away with the feather?
  2. Cleaning is so hard! It strikes me that this tradition is quite physical. You need to go through the whole home, pulling up couch cushions, vacuuming up the rug, getting into areas you may have forgotten about. In some parts of the world, it’s getting warm this time of year (that’s what I hear, anyway. In Chicago, it’s still pretty frigid), and one is likely to work up a bit of a sweat. And exercise, it turns out, is one of the best ways to cope with anxiety, stress, or depression. It can help you to focus into the moment, and quiet the busy mind. This may not be a reason that the tradition came about, but it is certainly a nice side benefit!
  3. You are always amazing. According to some teachings, the symbolism of the matza is that it is flat, low, modest, and simple. Leavened bread, on the other hand, rises, it gets puffed up, it swells. So when we get rid of the leavened bread, the chametz, we are also asked to examine our own ego. Are we puffed up with self importance that turns out to just be pockets of air, meaningless though it takes up space? Perhaps the matza serves as a model for the value of simple existence. It holds one of the most important places on the seder table simply by being there. You, too, need not do anything extra in order to hold an important place in the world. Your existence, just as you are, is not only enough, it is sacred.

Whatever your religious beliefs or Passover traditions, the underlying wisdom here applies:

  • One, it is helpful to self examine and purge that which is unnecessary.
  • Two, move your body, it’s good for you.
  • And three, no matter what you do, you are simply enough. Believe that.