It is that time of the year again.
Piles grow taller, and then decisions are made: What are we keeping and what are we tossing? What stays and what goes?
Old papers and books, pens and picture frames, things that once shone with freshness and promise, trinkets, memorabilia and so many other items from good times past find their way to the trash heap as faded relics. What once meant so much is no longer important.
At the root of this painful mass cleaning is the search for chometz, which is likened by Chazal to the perpetual struggle of the oveid Hashem in the battle with the yeitzer hora. It would seem natural that the “purge” that is currently taking place in Jewish homes around the world would lead us to a place of similar reckonings, namely a moment to contemplate the piles that fill our hearts: Which ideas go and which stay? Which attitudes once seemed promising, but have been exposed as false? What is worth keeping? What needs fixing and what has to go?
It is often challenging to part with an old book or gift, and it is so much harder to discard an idea.
Now is a most appropriate time.
Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, author of Leshem Shevo V’achlama (writing in Sefer Hadeiah, drush 5, anaf 2, se’if 11), says that the first ten days of Nissan are comparable to the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Shabbos Hagadol corresponds to Yom Kippur, while the four days preceding Pesach, when the korban was taken and inspected, reflect the holiness of the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, which the Vilna Gaon revealed as being especially auspicious.
These days are ones of reflection. We hold up things to the light to see their real worth. We hold up our possessions and examine them to determine whether they are worth keeping. When we look inward, we take stock and decide which middos to keep and which have to be broken.
A housewife in the midst of cleaning for Pesach will lift a food item and check its expiration date to see if it is still useable. She will study a scratched disc and decide if it can still give forth music. She’ll determine whether that book is missing too many pages to justify occupying room on the shelf.
In our personal search, how do we decide what has value?
The prime criteria for that which stays should be the truth, for truth has a kiyum, as the posuk says, “Sefas emes tikon la’ad” (Mishlei 12:19). As the people who possess the truth and are guided by it, veering from the truth ought to be sacrilegious; the truest form of chometz.
The Torah is Toras Emes. It is all about the ultimate truth. The truth is – as the Torah says – that Hashem created the world. It is folly to think that the world and everything in it came into being by itself. It is a lie created and adopted by people in order to be able to ignore the Creator’s wish that human life that conforms to the reasons for which the world was created as set forth in Torah.
Our very lives are testimony to our belief in Hashem. What we do every day and on Shabbos attests that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
All through the ages, people who were not beholden to the truth battled us in every way imaginable to man. Still, the truth endures. Our enemies were often quite strong, and more times than not, they felt that they had defeated us for all time, yet we persevered. They fell and we were able to rise from the ashes as many times as our homes, businesses and bodies were burnt.
Sefas emes tikon la’ad. Our lips have never stopped moving, because we have always fought for the truth, believed in the truth, and lived for its demands.
Nissan is the month of hischadshus, rebirth, and more reflective than many other exemplars, it expresses one of the primary strengths of our people. Rashi (Bereishis 1:1) discusses that the Torah should have begun from the parsha (Shemos 12:1) of “Hachodesh hazeh lochem rosh chodoshim,” which discusses the matters of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, and the month of Nissan.
Not only does that parsha contain the first mitzvah given to us as a people, which is significant in itself, but there is added significance in that it pertains to the monthly rebirth of the moon, for that represents our identity and strength.
There are times when people feel we are in a descending phase, necessitating that we adopt tools of fiction to guarantee our survival and to forge ahead. People begin rationalizing their actions in the belief that they will lead to a positive state. They justify those actions as congruous with the methods of those who surround us.
People who are irresponsible neglect to reflect on the outcomes of their actions. They ignore their responsibility to the greater good. The truth no longer motivates them. Rather, they are driven by the momentary good feelings brought on by what they have done.
People think that through glad handing and clever communication, they can promote themselves and their agendas, with the public no wiser.
However, if truth ceases to be your guide, then you end up being dishonest not only with others, but with yourself as well. You forget who you are and the purpose of life. Everything becomes superficial and false, and eventually, the alternative universe you have created craters under the weight of deception and faithlessness.
As we begin Sefer Vayikra and the study of korbanos, the first lesson pertains to the importance of honesty. The parsha begins (Vayikra 1:2), “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban laShem – When a person brings an offering to Hashem,” and enumerates the many laws pertaining to korbanos.
Rashi (ibid.) cites the Medrash which explains that the Torah referred to a person who brings a korban as an “adam,” and did not use the more common term of “ish,” to teach that just as Adam Harishon did not bring a korban from something that didn’t belong to him, because everything was his at that point in time, so too we must ensure that what we bring to Hashem is rightfully ours.
It goes to the heart of who we are that the first lesson we are taught about korbanos is to be faithfully honest. Even when engaging in an act as holy as offering a sacrifice to Hashem, people may be so ingrained with acting not-exactly-truthfully that they will use perfidious proceeds to procure the korban.
As a person brings a korban and stands lifnei Hashem, he is overcome by thoughts and hopes that he will remain on an exalted level. At that moment of teshuvah and vidui, he is enveloped by holiness and truth.
Always elusive, truth has never been harder to find than today.
Our world is all about perceptions, buzzwords, impressions, cajoling, patronizing, manipulating and creating narratives that are appealing. The truth is a secondary consideration, if even that.
Let’s take an easy example, from the outside world, the sphere of politics. It is much less painful than examining our own world.
Democrats created a fiction that Vladimir Putin and the Russians colluded with Donald Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Trump had no business or connections in Russia. He never met or spoke to Putin. Consider: Trump was given no chance of ever getting elected, so why would Russia risk angering an administration to buttress a neophyte who could not win? Besides, they marched all over Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Why would they want to trade in Hillary for an unknown, campaigning on American First policies?
But the Democrats and their sympathetic media created the story, repeated it enough times so that people take it seriously, and the FBI, NSA and Congress engage in contortions as they investigate the connection and leaks planted to embarrass Trump and his people.
For weeks, Jewish groups were claiming that Trump’s election unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism. The argument was fictitious, because nothing Trump did or said would indicate that he is anti-Semitic, and in fact, until now, he has been the friendliest president towards Jews and religious Jews. But as threatening calls were pouring in to Jewish community centers, though nothing ever materialized, the narrative that anti-Semitism is at an all-time high was created.
It was useful for fundraising and for preaching, and it worked well, until it crashed last week with the sad arrest of a Jewish boy in Israel.
Our people have suffered from real anti-Semitism. We’ve been banned from industries and professions, burned, pillaged and chased from place to place. Pesach was a time of fear across the exile, as pogroms would ensue over the lie that Jews kill Christian children for holiday rituals at the Pesach Seder. We know what real anti-Semitism is and should appreciate the freedoms we enjoy in this country. We should not take advantage of those freedoms by engaging in the types of behavior that cause people to attempt to block us from moving into their neighborhoods and think ill of all Jews.
Before we rush to announce blood libels and hate campaigns, we should look inward and question if we are really experiencing anti-Semitism. Is that what our grandparents faced back in Europe? Really? I think we know the answer, and that answer might embarrass us.
It is an appropriate and timely reminder. Bein hazemanim and the precious Chol Hamoed days afford us a chance to circulate beyond our regular neighborhoods. Before we shout anti-Semitism, we should question our own conduct and ensure that when others see Jews, they see a nation of princes. They should see people of distinction, manners, class and concern for others, people who are mekadshei sheim Hashem.
Most of all, we need to stop lying to ourselves, about this and about everything.
Kotzker chassidim would tell the story of a talmid of the Kotzker Rebbe who married a very wealthy girl. The young man spent his first Shabbos after sheva brachos at the home of his in-laws, and watched as his father-in-law, at the head of the table, presided over the lavish seudah. As the fish arrived in a large, elaborate platter, the head of the family sat up straight, with his mouth watering in anticipation.
When the platter was delivered to him, he grasped it with both hands, closed his eyes and intoned, “Lechavod Shabbos kodesh. All that I eat is for the honor of Shabbos.”
He then helped himself and passed the plate to the new son-in-law, who lifted it high and said, with the same solemnity, “Hineni ochel rak l’hano’as bitni. All that I eat is for the sake of my stomach’s enjoyment.”
The father-in-law was incensed. “Nu, Shabbos!” he roared.
The son-in-law shrugged. “Emes,” he retorted.
We need to stop fooling ourselves, buying into ideas parroted by others and going along just because. Look inward. Be real. Speak to other people. Get out of your bubble. Ensure that you are not fooling yourself.
Emes, not vacuousness and faux righteousness, should be your guide.
We need to examine our questions, our value system, to ensure that we are not just making ourselves feel good, but that our actions really are truly good.
A young man came in to Chacham Ovadiah Yosef with a halachic query. His wife was experiencing a difficult pregnancy and he wanted to know if she should fast on Yom Kippur.
Rav Ovadia answered his question, then called the young man back. “You know, a pregnant woman with your wife’s condition is often in bed and unable to do very much around the house,” Chacham Ovadia said, as he proceeded to suggest different ways that the husband could be helpful and encouraging to his wife during that period.
The man repeated the encounter and said, “I understood that Maran was telling me to be honest with myself, to be really frum, to care not just about the black and white halacha but the halacha of living like a ben Torah. He answered the questions I didn’t ask and told me what I really needed to hear.”
Our mouths can cause cosmic change. Taking a simple animal and saying, “Harei zu olah,” we can transform it into a Divine gift. Through saying, “Lesheim matzas mitzvah,” we can elevate a lump of dough into the holiest bread we have.
Let us make sure that our words mean something. Let us see the crumbs of chometz in platitudes and sound bites and get rid of them. Let us search our hearts by the light of candles and make sure that they are truly pure.
Doing so represents real Pesach cleaning and is far from easy, but it can be transformative and allow us to celebrate Yom Tov newly pure, not just in our homes, but in our hearts as well.
B’Nissan nigalu ub’Nissan asidin lehigo’el. We can make it happen. Let’s get real.