Pesach Sheini

Last week was Pesach Sheini, the “raindate” for bringing the Korban Pesach for those who were ritually unclean when the first date came around. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this, more than two decades after accepting the yoke of the mitzvos on myself as a young adult with a secular background, that I realized what a profound metaphor this is for baalei teshuva. But every year Pesach is, for me, a watershed of realization of just how much has changed — and how much more there is to do.

That there’s always more to do I understood even before I understood what it meant to be a Jew. I had cut out the quote from Pirkei Avos 2:21, “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it,” and posted it on my dormitory door even before I knew where it came from. (No, I am not suggesting the Sages were talking about Pesach cleaning!) The fundamental truth of it spoke to me, as did the implicit insistence that life has meaning, purpose, a goal behind personal achievement and fleeting pleasures. Ironically, Pesach Sheini seems to contradict that message by its apparent focus on a ritual whose moral meaning we don’t readily comprehend. But Pesach has a unique way of reminding me of a very accessible lesson about keeping the Torah. Perhaps we can say it is about bitul — nullification. No, I don’t mean nullifying one’s pride, or one’s ego; I am not the one to preach on that topic. But do let me explain what I mean.

Let me first ask you: Did Pesach just seem to whiz by this year? It did for us. When it comes out the way it did this year, with “no chol hamoed” as we say — there’s an erev Shabbos in it, and an erev yomtov, and another day stuck in there, but by and large they don’t even bother promoting special chol hamoed fairs and concerts — it’s just over as soon as it starts, isn’t it?

Well, when I was a kid we kept a kind of Pesach. Besides our fast-motion sedarim out of the Workman’s Circle Haggadah, there was also the chometz issue. In our family, we didn’t eat bread or bread-like products. As far as we knew, that was observing something. So right until my first visit to yeshiva I was meticulous about eating matzah on Pesach, right up to and including eating a matza-borne cheese steak in college, in which I took great pride of a sort and saw no fatal contradiction.

But my, how long these Pesachs were!

Eight. Endless. Days. Of. Negation.

No bread. No pizza. I’m a carbohydrates guy, see? I felt this negation of desire. Perhaps it buoyed me in a way for my future as an orthodox Jew. The discipline of it, after all, was fairly unique in my life. And I mentioned the pride inherent in eating this traife matzah thing in the middle of a Princeton eating club; that’s a good thing too, right? You can build on that; orthodox Jews have to get used to being oddballs in galus (exile). On the other hand, I remember not enjoying this time. Eight. Endless. Days. Of. Negation.

For what?

There is an undercurrent of sentiment among baalei teshuvah — perhaps it exists among us all, but it is more prevalent among some than others — of grudging acceptance of our new lives. What does Avos say right before the one I cited in the second chapter? “Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

Oy, pressing. Lazy, undisciplined. So much work! So many of us baalei teshuva are true sons of Yitzchok Avinu: Duty. Honor. Obligation. “Abba, please tie me down so the knife won’t slip and render me possul (flawed for sacrifice).”

Simcha, anyone?

Yes, the baalei mussar will tell us that this level of avodas Hashem brings with it the highest “true” simcha. They find it too in learning Torah at a high level. Same perek of Avos: “A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be pious, a bashful one cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach, nor does anyone who does much business grow wise.” Reading the words of the Chazon Ish, one of the true Torah beings of the previous century, about the mind-boggling transcendental experience of melding withTorah — of the dveikus (attachment) to Godliness that is achieved — is breathtaking. And crushing. Because even a bright guy such as myself who at this point can learn a little has, really, no first-hand idea what the Chazon Ish is talking about and never will.

So the simcha for the rest of us comes in the form perfected by Yaakov Avinu: Expressions of chesed per Avraham, tempered with the duty of Yitzchak, and integrated, as so much is, by Yaakov — utilizing the power of the physical to unleash the spiritual, as I have seen suggested in the name of the Sfas Emes. We need that physical — some use, I believe in a facile manner but perhaps not so innacurately, the term “hasidic” to describe this delighting in the physical mitzvos — lever to squeeze the juice out of the Torah. It’s a lever built of hands-on, affirmative mitzvos; delighting in the presence of other Jews committed to avodas Hashem (same perek of Avos –“Hillel would say: Do not separate yourself from the community”); filling your void, your negation, your bittul, with simcha.

That doesn’t always come easily, at least not for me. I’m a lawyer. I focus on rules, regulations, compliance, advocacy. If you look up simcha in Wikipedia you will not see my picture. I once asked a leading kiruv figure why I couldn’t throw myself into six hours of dancing in a circle on Simchas Torah. Was it this, was it that, should I work on the other? He took a good look at me, and said, “No, you’re just a kalte litvak” (a cold “Lithuanian”). Well, I’m not so sure. Perhaps I present as one. I’ll save the personal therapy for another blog, another time.

But Pesach, despite its nearly crushing halachic obligations and technicalities, does not let any of us live in a hollowed-out zone of cold compliance. Pesach means four days of yomtov, each of them with two festive meals including that all-star of seudos, the Seder, positively jammed with hands-on mitzvah-making and communal interaction, even at the familial level; eight mornings of spirited davening along with Hallel — singing, soaring, social Hallel! — plus a full-blown Shabbos, three festive meals, and not just matzah plus things but basar v’yayin (meat and wine), yomtov and Shabbos delicacies, a day before Shabbos and a day before Yomtov cooking it all up and cleaning the house again and going through three mini-cycles of affirmative yomtov activity all for the sake of mitzvos.

Who has room for a spiritual vacuum?

I know a person who tells me periodically that he wants to do teshuva and it never works out. He sits in his room on Shabbos — an empty, cold, negative Shabbos — and stares at the clock, waiting to be over, daring God to tempt him violate it. Of course it never works. He has hangups about the “frummy scene” (ach! Same perek: “An evil eye, the evil inclination, and the hatred of one’s fellows, drive a person from the world”!) so his “teshuvah” is made up solely at attempts at not sinning. But there’s a reason for all those mitzvos, including all those mitzvos d’rabbanim (rabbinical enactments) that the Sages instituted in their brilliance solely to draw out the simcha and the action in our lives that make up the fabric of Shabbos and yomtov.

So now Pesach is far from empty. It is teeming, heaping, oozing. Chronologically, it whizzes past. It is not a punishment; it is a mountain to scale, a peak to enjoy from the top, taking in the fresh and rarified air, the lofty view, enhanced by the pain in our chests and our legs from the climb. It can only be that way be pushing ourselves as hard as possible to let the mitzvos do the work — to push ourselves to stop pushing and allow ourselves to be pulled. “Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.” (Same perek.)

That’s Pesach Sheini for me — a fix for my old, spiritually negated Pesachs of yore. And yes, yes, it is geshmak (tasty)… and filling!

18 comments on “Pesach Sheini

  1. Read!
    For the JIBs I have visited Vesom Sechel (vesomsechel.blogspot.com). Nice post about Shavuot-Shemini Atzeret-spiritual and Pesach-Sukkot-overload of physical activity. In fact Rav Elzas said something similar when he was in town.

  2. This year I forgot Pesach Sheni entirely.(This was my fault for not making minyan, because I believe our minhag is not to say Tachanun) But the point about Pesach is worthwhile, and applies also to Sukkot. In normal years there is a great sense of accomplishment in achieving all the cooking that has to be done. This year we were on the knife’s edge because rice was better than potatoes to handle my husband’s acid reflux. “But Gil said that even in Eretz Yisrael, the very first Ashkenazic communities continued not eating kitniyot …” (Me) and there was no rice. So I was very glad it was over.
    Re dispute with DK my highly secular Mom would not send her kids to Princeton either–she considers it “too preppy”. My Mom is the one who found Macalester College for my sister.

  3. Steve, to what depth does one have to understand a specific halacha in order to comment on it? Did the Chazon Ish and RYBS mean to the depth of their own knowledge?

  4. When you think about it, the CI in Emunah UBitachon and RYBS in The Halachic Man are saying the same idea-One cannot pretend to offer a Jewish view on any issue or the Jewish philosphy on any halacha until and unless one has gone through and learned the halacha itself. That is their respective understanding of the Mishnah in Avos that you referred to.

  5. This is indeed a topic that is very near and dear to me.

    Ron, which Chazon Ish are you referring to?

    In Emunah and Bitachon (my translation—caveat emptor) he begins (1):

    “The attribute of emunah (belief in G d) is a subtle inclination of the sensitivity of the soul. If a man has a strong character and is in a state of quiet contemplation, free of hunger for earthly pleasures, and his eye takes in the spectacle of the heavens above and the earth below, then he is moved and taken aback, because the world appears before him as a closed riddle, concealed and wondrous. This riddle embraces his heart and mind, and he is almost faint, without a breath of life remaining. His whole attention and aspiration are directed solely to this riddle, and his soul longs to know its solution. He would choose to pass through fire and water to know it. For what purpose is this sweet life to him if it remains hidden from him to the ultimate extent? His head is spinning , he’s distressed, and yearning to understand life’s secret and to know its source, and yet, the gates are locked before him.”

    He then goes through the entire human body and all of creation at length, showing how the design inherent in nature brings us to a realization of the Creator. He concludes (9):

    “When a person’s intellect recognizes the truth of His existence, Blessed be He, immediately an unbounded joy enters him and his soul feels great pleasure. The imagination unites with the intellect to experience pleasure in Hashem. All the pleasures of the flesh slip away, pass away, and his refined soul is enveloped in holiness as if it withdrew from the turbid body and roams in the highest heavens. When a person is elevated to these holy values, a whole new world reveals itself to him. For it is possible in this world to be like an angel for a moment and to have pleasure in the Holy Radiance; all the pleasures of this world become like naught compared to the pleasure of a person devoted to his Maker, Blessed be He.

    This deveikus (“unbounded joy and great pleasure” in having awareness of the Creator) seems accessible to any maamin (believer)! I don’t see that he requires any connection to deep Torah study to actualize this deveikus.

    I’m aware of some of his letters, but I don’t recall more than the equation that ameilus b’Torah (labor in Torah) leads to the greatest hana’ah (I don’t have the Michtavei Chazon Ish here). And that might be even more appropriate for the baal teshuvah who breaks his or her teeth to make heads or tails of Chumash with Rashi!

    L’fum tzaara agra—no pain, no gain.

    I am skeptical of the whole concept of “spiritual experiences” which I believe are usually hopefully-labeled emotional experiences. Big topic.

    I believe this line from the Chazon Ish cited above addresses this issue:

    The imagination unites with the intellect to experience pleasure in Hashem.

    Here’s some background (Emunah and Bitachon, 8):

    Imagination is a faculty influenced by the intellect. It is superficial and not analytical. Its nature is to convince the person and to capture his heart so that he won’t think in opposition to his imagination. However, the intellect is in constant conflict with the imagination. A person recognizes with his intellect that he can’t rely on his imagination, but sometimes the imagination will triumph when it is very strong.

    In this phrase: “The imagination unites with the intellect to experience pleasure in Hashem,” I think he’s describing the emotions (which are normally captured by the imagination) uniting with the intellect. That is the basis of the ultimate ‘transcendental experience.’

  6. Laura said, “I feel like you negated and shoved aside Jaded’s comments”

    While I can’t really know if her frequent references to producing desired mental states chemically are meant seriously, I take exception—which was the point of my comment above.

    I have no problem, though, with the idea of deriving simcha in many (kosher) ways, not only through holidays or achieving gadlus.

  7. OK, here’s the aliyah plug…

    There’s a lot more time for Joy here in Israel. Aside from the fact that you’re actually living, in a sense, the culmination of what you’re reading about in the Haggadah, the work to enjoyment ration is much better here.

    Though still OCDesque, the cleening is just not as intense. (Maybe because on average we have smaller houses and fewer cars.)

    The whole Pesach food in the supermarket in February extravaganza just doesn’t happen here. Pesach items start gradually appearing after Purim. This definitely lowers the stress level.

    And of course the biggy is that there’s only 2 days of yom tov instead four. One seder to take really seriously and then move on. Less food prep. More Chol Hamoed fun.

    Somehow it just feels right, like maybe this was the way it was meant to be?

  8. Bob and Ron,

    I feel like you negated and shoved aside Jaded’s comments, perhaps not deliberately, however. Her assertion that Joy can be synthetically created without gadlus (and holidays) involved is an interesting and very valid point.

    Let’s be honest – as you said, Pesach is incredably labor intensive. Realistically not every frum jew is going to get joy out of all that work. We do it becuase we believe in avodas Hashem, and if we internalize s’char veonesh we realise that the fruits of our labors will come some time in this life and/or the next. I don’t think one necessarily must feel complete joy out of a holiday that is clearly a nisayon for many in terms of the halachik minutia.

    The bottom line is emunah. Once you have it, it makes all of Halacha doable albeit still hard at times. The result of that emunah can be Joy, or sometimes just the knowledge that you are doing what G-d wants, and that could be enough too.

  9. Thank you for your nice comments, people.

    David, perhaps because I am so cerebrally-oriented it’s just different for me. I am skeptical of the whole concept of “spiritual experiences” which I believe are usually hopefully-labeled emotional experiences. Big topic.

    But the Chason Ish writes of a transcendental experience that is simply wondrous, an approach to and a glimpse of the Divine, and he was the ultimate Litvak, wasn’t he? He is not talking about some sort of kumsitz-induced catharsis at the Chabad House or Aish’s “Five Fingers of Clarity Night.” (I kid because I love you!)

    It is very, very satisfying to do what I can with a sefer or a gemara, and the feelings of pride you describe are real. But I believe the Chazon Ish, for whom the whole Torah was an open book the way I can read the instructions on my bottle of Excedrin, was experiencing something altogether different.

    But what do I know!

  10. This was a great post, as usual well written and eloquently expressed.

    no first-hand idea what the Chazon Ish is talking about and never will

    Ron, this brings to mind a quote from Rav Noach Orlowek: A talmid in his beginning Gemara shiur once remarked that the feeling of hana’ah (pleasure) he had after mastering an daf Gemara was greater than anything he’d ever experienced in the secular world (and this guy had been around, apparently).

    Why is the idea of the Chazon Ish so inaccessible to a baal teshuvah (or to any talmid that for whatever reason has difficulty in learning)? If he labors in Torah, the spiritual hana’ah, the real sense of satisfaction is unlike any other endeavor in the world.

    As the prayer of Rabbi Nechuneyah ben Hakamah says: We labor and they labor, we labor and receive reward and they labor and do not receive reward.

    There is a spiritual reward intrinsically connected to the effort we put into our Torah study.

    I think what the Chazon Ish is talking about is very accessible.

    Labor in Torah = hana’ah.

    And this hana’ah is the greatest in the world, because it brings closeness to God.

    That’s Pesach Sheini for me — a fix for my old, spiritually negated Pesachs of yore

    Sounds to me like you’re a kalte litvak with a taste for drush!

  11. JT’s alternative path reminds me of the ersatz-plagues conjured up by the Egyptian magicians.

    Ain’t nothing like the real thing!

  12. This casts a whole new enlightening reflection on the age old adage “cast thy bread upon the water and after many days it shall return” – now in runaway metaphor format for posterity purposes pondering.
    Although im pretty adept at the “connection” thing especially since it was the only parts of jewish school tests I could actually get right (the “mah hakesher” connection concoction possibilities were endless and fun too I even got bonus points for being creative)…
    The only connection between Joy and Passover I can drum up is the dishwashing liquid based cleaning campaigns… which i’m not even sure is included in that famous know it all book of kosher for passover rules.
    If you think about it, “joy” is a state of being easily fabricated with various remedies, readily available in a kaleidascope of flavored chemical and pleasurable activities.
    Its just a tweaking of the chemical levels running along on the the neuronal circuitry systems, neuroscientifically speaking.
    So basically I can create this joy you speak of so lovingly with or without the circumstances you seem to equate this emotion with ,like jewish holidays.
    Im not so sure that religion and neuroscience are so intimately involved with each other, on this all the way level.

  13. Ron recalled that “I once asked a leading kiruv figure why I couldn’t throw myself into six hours of dancing in a circle on Simchas Torah. Was it this, was it that, should I work on the other? He took a good look at me, and said, “No, you’re just a kalte litvak” (a cold “Lithuanian”)”

    Anyone seriously into kiruv has to know that Jews differ in what makes them happy, what motivates them, etc., and that these differences are not to be tossed off as personal aberrations or results of the “wrong” upbringing. We are not interchangeable parts.

    I found that drinking anything alcoholic in any significant way on Purim made me feel lousy. I found that dancing to metronomic, bass-heavy substitutes for Jewish music did not move me. But I found many other ways to be besimcha, so I’m not too concerned!

  14. Great post. You mentioned eating cheese steak on Matza and last year we posted a picture of McDonalds giving away Matza.

    However after learning the second chapter of Pesachim in depth I came to the realization that you are liable for Kares (the current highest level of liability) only when you eat a kezais (olives measure) of full fledge chometz (like bread or crackers).

    So those people who only abstain from bread products are actually accomplishing something. I know that’s not the most significant point of your post, but I wanted to mention that.

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