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.
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).”
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!