a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Do We Ever Really Get Rid of all of the Chametz?

Posted on: April 17, 2011

Rabbi K. encouraged us to get on our hands and knees to scrub our floors this week.  She said even if we were traveling for Pesach, and therefore wouldn’t need to clear our home of chametz, that we needed to get on our hands and knees and clean.  She’s the most passionate speaker I’ve had the pleasure of being in the presence with for a long time.  She gets really excited, she’s animated and speaks with her hands.  Her facial expressions are almost extreme as she arches her eyebrows and really gives it to the class.

“Get on your hands and knees and clean!” she exclaimed drumming her fists on the table.

This morning, I got on my hands and knees and cleaned…the fridge and freezer.  I moped the floor like a regular person but, something happened.  Rabbi K. told us that the repetitive nature of scrubbing, that back and forth motion, can be meditative.  She asked us to think about the other chametz in our lives.  The things that puff us up, make us bloated, make us feel full even though we may be empty.  Our arrogance and ego are two areas of chametz in our lives.  And just like she said, I was thinking while I was cleaning.  Thinking of what makes me feel full but doesn’t satisfy me in my life.  

I’ve always said that I come from two strong parents and in turn I am a strong person.  I’m strong-willed, determined, and am always (always) right.  I pride myself in being faster, smarter, quicker than everyone else.  I’m competitive, ambitious, and driven.  Great attributes, right?  You need them in this world.  You need them even more and in greater amounts in New York City.  The City makes you develop a tough skin and put up blinders.  Living here you make the choice to not see or hear things around you.  There are good reasons for it, but I barely look people in the eye walking down the street and never wish someone a good morning walking through my neighborhood.

On Friday night I frantically left my job to run home to have Shabbas dinner with Mirs.  I’d had a shitty Thursday and while going to shul could have been comforting but what I really needed was time with my partner.  I got into my neighborhood with platters and cutlery in one hand, groceries in another, and a bottle of wine balanced on my pinkie finger.  The sun was low in the sky, I noticed, but I had at least two hours before I had to light candles.  That’s when I remembered I didn’t have candles.  I was anxious for a moment and then noticed the neighborhood home goods store on the corner and went in.  The shop keeper was a man who looked to be of Asian descent.  I asked him if he sold candles and he told me he didn’t.  I must’ve looked really pathetic because he asked how many I needed.  I told him I was a new Jew and that it was Shabbas in a few hours and I forgot to buy candles.  He went over to a display of wall sconces and removed two white pillars and handed them to me with a smile.  I was shocked and thanked him repeatedly.  After Pesach, I’ll make him cookies.  Someone remind me!

It’s hard in New York to make statements like “I will give to the needy” or “I will smile at a stranger” because how do you know if the “needy” is in need of drugs or if when you smile at that stranger he’d make a sexual remark in return.  You don’t know therefore I don’t know if I could do it.  I’m thinking about it though, which is a step in the right direction.

We clean and we scrub.  We sweep and we mop.  We open the windows and wash down the panes.  We sell our chametz of give it to the needy.  In my case, it’s hiding in a pantry that won’t be opened for a week.  We pull out rugs, couches, ovens, desks and get behind them to clean the house of every non-kosher item.  Tonight observant Jews are searching for the last bits of Chametz  with a candle and feather to burn in the morning.  For 7 days we go without wheat (bread), rye (whiskey) barley (beer) spelt (gross bread), and oat(meal).  Instead we eat matzoh, the “bread of affliction” and ideally we are reminded of redemption, freedom, and letting go of things that fill our lives with clutter.  What happens after that 7th day?  Do we go back to the way we were, filling ourselves with air until next Passover or do we truly let go of all of the Chametz?

3 Responses to "Do We Ever Really Get Rid of all of the Chametz?"

“It’s hard in New York to make statements like “I will give to the needy” or “I will smile at a stranger” because how do you know if the “needy” is in need of drugs or if when you smile at that stranger he’d make a sexual remark in return.”

This was the question my youth group and I had to deal with when going to Catholic National Youth Conference… when I thought I was Catholic. Coming from a 20k person small town, Atlanta Georgia was monstrous, and destitute (or at least people who appeared destitute) souls were everywhere. One girl made the mistake of pulling out her wallet to give a beggar money just to have it, three credit cards, her drivers licence, and five whole dollars snatched from her hands. From that point on, the answer was McDonalds certificates.

It was easier on me. My mother and I were walking down a ramp at the stadium when a man asked me if I’d finished the carton of fries I had in my hand. Since he asked, I decided I was and gave it to him. While I was walking away, I turned around and watched him savor chili cheese fries like it was lobster. It’s a moment I’ll always remember, because nothing like ‘I wonder if he’s Christian,’ or ‘I wonder if he’s an alcoholic’ ran through my mind (since, being young and overly protected in life, those were apparently my major concerns at the time. So glad I’ve grown out of small town NY.)

Giving is a sign of strength. Exuding kindness is, too, and I think keeping your house free of Chametz year round… whether physical or theoretical… would be as well. Every six months, my gf and I rearrange our room. After living together for over four years now, its become almost ritual. Take all of the furniture out of the bedroom, vacuum every last inch and put it all together again, differently. Instantly the feeling of worldly confinement relaxes, until we build it up again and clear it out six months later. In Tibetan Buddhism, my gf’s favorite religion, there’s a special focus on letting go of worldly possessions. It’s a theme I see crop up in so many religions… I can’t help but think there’s serious meaning in that, regardless of its form or extremity. I also think, though, that there’s great value in realizing when to give something like a smile to everyone you make eye contact with regardless of their potential reaction, to making sure you give needy people something they need instead of want. I think I need to remember that myself.

Yeah, Colleen, I need to read your paper immediately. I know it is going to be Ah-Mazing 🙂 I totally agree that giving is a sign of strength because it takes strength to give someone the benefit of the doubt. I like to give food, too. I had a similar experience in Ann Arbor one summer. My sister, mother and I got really wasted on some amazing sangria and really yummy food. We over-ordered and were pumped to have some left overs and there was a man on the street who asked for it. Giving him my food was better than anything. I’m also more inclined to think that giving goodness and kindness by way of food is more immediately satisfying in many ways.

I still don’t think I can make eye contact and smile…too many creepers for that!

Oh, I don’t know if it’s anything worthwhile yet. I did manage to write an entire 25 pages exactly a week ago, but it’s really rough. I’ll send you a copy of it once it’s in its final stage. Thanks, though! 🙂

I actually don’t make eye contact and smile; a great deal of the time whenever I just nod my head. Call me paranoid, but I don’t need random guys assuming some sort of feminine that I’m not. A nod is much more neutral, I think, and suits me well. I really don’t blame you for not smiling, to be honest.

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