Pre-Pesach stress

“Pesach, Pesach, Pesach…” Shaina loves singing the kindergarten pre-festival song. The tune is light and jolly, although the lyrics, “We sweep away the chametz…” remind us we have plenty of work to do in anticipation of the holiday.

For the week of Passover, Jews may not own, eat or use leaven products. We may not even see a cookie crumb in our homes, cars or offices. Jewish families spend weeks getting their homes Pesach-ready, ridding the house of breadcrumbs and de-cluttering while we’re at it. Pesach commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and the goal is to experience personal liberation during the Festival of Freedom. We read the history of Moses, Pharaoh and the plagues, but the point is to relive it.

Sometimes I think we do a better job of reliving the slavery part of the story. Over the years, our family has got Pesach prep down to a quasi-science. We hire extra staff to assist with the cleaning and have streamlined our room-by-room mop-up plan. 

When our children were little, we found Pesach cleaning challenging because the kids would sprinkle mess wherever we had cleaned. We used to chuckle that babies are that way, and then we’d wheel out the vacuum cleaner again. 

Shaina takes undoing our hard work to another level. We re-experience the Talmud’s description of hard labour in Egypt: As the Israelites would complete a building, it would sink into the marshland it had been built on. Keeping with the theme, Shaina unpacks each shelf moments after we organise it. We scrub and rearrange; she throws things. Shaina doesn’t grasp that you should avoid bringing chametz into rooms that have been Pesach-prepped. And she is offended when her mom doesn’t give her undivided attention while organising the kitchen. Our Pesach preparation pace is “one step forward, two steps back” and feels aligned with Biblical backbreaking labour.  

On Sunday, I had a small victory. I enlisted Shaina as my deputy cleaner. Genius! She loved it. Shaina helped me throw things into the garbage and placed various items where I directed her. 

We had a little run-in when Shaina discovered a bottle of insect repellent in a cupboard we were cleaning. That allowed me five undisturbed minutes as she tried to remove the bottle’s protective cover. But when she eventually succeeded, and I had to take the bottle, she was mad. I explained it was unsafe for her to play with the spray because she might accidentally spritz herself in the mouth or eyes. 

“It danjus?”, she wanted to know. Yes, dangerous. 

She accepted my explanation and helped with two more errands before her mom arrived home. I was excited for Naomi to applaud our Big Pesach Helper. Mom got back too late. 

As Naomi walked through the door, my Pesach assistant resigned and morphed into a tornado, determined to undo every productive step her mother would take. Mom wasn’t impressed when I explained that Shaina had been a stellar helper only seconds before.

Shaina’s other favourite Pesach song is the “Pharaoh” song. In the unlikely event you’ve never heard it, the chorus goes, “No, no, no, I will not let them go!”. We urgently need an alternative to this one because Shaina seems inspired by Pharaoh’s intransigence. She has adopted his motto of “No, no, no, I won’t go!” in the mornings. Shaina has been acting uncharacteristically defiant about eating, dressing and getting into the car for school. The other day, she spread-eagled across the exit of the local kosher shop and refused to budge. 

We aren’t sure if her defiance is because her meds are off, she’s not feeling well, is anxious about changes to her routine, or because she wants to assert her independence. Regardless of the cause, it’s added fresh challenges to an already demanding time of year.

I’m hoping that, by the time we reach Pesach, she’ll arrive at the part of the story where Moses liberates the people from Pharaoh’s defiance. In case, she doesn’t, we’ll probably sing the “No, no, no” chorus with her often. Or we may get an early start on the four cups of wine. 

Shaina at the model Matzah bakery at Chabad House, Johannesburg

Published by rabbiarishishler

Husband, father and rabbi of Chabad of Strathavon in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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