I have always thought that cheshbon hanefesh, literally a reckoning with one’s own soul was a practice most appropriate at the beginning of Elul, the month that preceded Rosh Hashanah. To this end Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the nineteenth century Mussar revival, undertook a forty day period of silence annually, from the beginning of Elul, through Yom Kippur to review his past year’s patterns of speech, to atone for wrongful speech and to recapture the awe and sacredness of each word uttered.
This type of introspection is appropriate of course all year long, but it is particularly poignant before Rosh Hashanah. In the same way a month before the summer begins many people go on crash diets, fearing how their bodies will look on the beach, so the month of Elul is figuratively the crash spiritual regiment that we can go on out of fear of how our souls might appear to God. This is a period of awe, not terror, infused with all of the promise that born out of the great compassion and love of God.
The last several years though I have become more and more convinced that a period of spiritual inventory taking and cleansing was even more appropriate from the mid point of the month of Adar through the middle of Nissan. Let’s examine the reasons and possibilities of a pre-Passover discipline such as this, and then consider the process and ritual that might be undertaken.
First let’s consider the two Shabbats that surround Purim, Shabbat Zachor and Shabbat Parah. Zachor (remember) is an exhortation not to forget Amelek the stealth enemy who attacked Israel’s rear flank following our recent departure from Mitzrayim. Amelek is not only indicative of the many enemies that threaten us if we drop our guard, but is also symbolic of the sin and bad company that can overwhelm us and draw us away from Hashem if we fail to maintain constant vigilance. Shabbat Parah, which follows Purim, begins the preparation for Pesach.
Parah (literally cow) recalls the odd command to use the ashes of a Red Heifer for ritual purification, which is among the most enigmatic decrees in Torah. This is found in Numbers 19:1-22, the special maftir for Shabbat Parah. One could ask, why a red heifer in particular, or what is a red heifer (how red must a red heifer be), or most fundamentally why a she heifer rather than the usual male require for other sacrificial rites. I find this question the most fascinating. According to one tradition this is Israel’s atonement for the Golden Calf, for just as a mother cleans up after her child, so the She – Heifer atones for the calf.
Due to the strange almost superstitious nature of the rite of the Red Heifer, it could appear to mirror some of the pagan practices that surrounded Israel. Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai when questioned about the rite of the heifer answered a Roman official “ Just as a person possessed by unclean spirits is freed by certain medications or the burning of certain roots, so the ashes of the Red Heifer dissolved in water drives away the spirits of defilement.” The Midrashic tradition sites his disciples’ dissatisfaction with his answer, “You have sent the heathen away with a broken reed of an answer, but what will you answer us.” But his subsequent answer is in fact a non-answer that upholds the mystery of God’s ways, “By your lives, the dead man does not defile, neither does the water with the ashes of the heifer make pure, but it is a decree from the King of Kings, whose reasons it behooves not mortals to question.”
What Yochanon Ben Zakkai is indicating is that the purifying rite of the Red Heifer is not only enigmatic but also paradoxical. We read in this parasha that the water with the ashes of the Red Heifer purifies that which is defiled, but at the same time it defiles those who are involved in the process of preparation. To this theme the Talmud reflects that Torah forbids the drinking of blood, but an infant nurses from its mother, whose blood is transformed into milk as a source of life (Niddah 9a). This paradox can also be helpful while pondering that the holiest work of HaShem is not normally accomplished in one’s own insular world of personal piety, but rather out in a world in need of help – recognizing that one may get a little dirty in the process. Though this might be the most enigmatic commandment in all of Torah, it is again a reminder of our need to separate ourselves from everything that might be destructive in our lives and walk carefully through life as we seek to do Hashem’s work and be of help to others.
Next let’s consider the preparation of our homes for Pesach. To properly rid our homes of chametz we must begin the process early and plan carefully. For a month prior we try to plan our meals carefully avoiding the purchase of larger quantities of prepared foods that we will have to discard. A week before Pesach we begin to gather unopened chametz for donation to food pantries and we package up more valuable food and drink for “sale” to our non-Jewish neighbors. All of this preparation is necessary so that we might be able to complete a thorough cleaning of chametz a few days prior to Erev Pesach when we perform bedikat. The point is that only through a long and methodical process are we able to search for the last of the chametz and recite with conviction a nullification of chametz.
But there is a deeper meaning to the long, methodical and exhausting task of cleaning out chametz. According to the medieval commentator Rabbeinu Bachya, “ It is well known that the chametz prohibitions allude to the yetzer hara (evil inclination), for man is obligated to utilize his yetzer tov (good inclination) to subdue his yetzer hara.” Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam of Bobov adds, “Thus, the long and laborious task of making one’s home chametz-free is far more than mere “spring cleaning.” The scrubbing of cabinets and closets helps scrub the chambers of one’s heart and purge them of that which distances one from his Creator.” Finally as Messianic Jews we cannot ignore the impassioned exhortation of Rabbi Sha’ul of Tarsus, “ Since Messiah our Pesach Lamb has been sacrificed, let us keep the Holiday without the old chametz, the chametz of malice and wickedness, but with matzah without chametz, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
Agreeing with our the tradition of our sages regarding the parallel between cleansing our homes of chametz and cleansing our lives of sin and bad associations, I would suggest that we undertake a similarly exhaustive regimen to prepare our souls prior to Pesach that we employ for our homes. The laws of removing chametz are elaborate and well defined. If we merely articulate our desire to remove sin from our lives without plan, process or ritual I am afraid that our best intentions might be set adrift in the Sea of Arbitrary. We cannot remove what we have not identified.
My recommendation is to begin a process of deliberate moral assessment a kind of spiritual bedikat chametz. Then when the search for both physical chametz and spiritual chametz is complete, recite a nullification of both, burning a written inventory of our moral shortcomings along with our household chametz. The question remains though, “how does one inventory character flaws and bad associations?” To do so we must know where to look. Flaws in character usually expose themselves in our relationships. So here are the steps that I would undertake in preparing for this unique search for spiritual chametz.
- Pray specifically for Hashem’s strength in making this arduous search.
- Make a list of relationships that in the past year have experience or created feelings of anger or anxiety. Include not only people but institutions as well.
- Identify the exact nature of the problems or unsettled feelings in each relationship. For instance have you experienced resentment, shame, guilt or confusion? How have you felt threatened? Are there unhealthy patterns of activity, thoughts or associations in your life that you need to separate yourself from?
- You may want to discuss this list with a trusted confidant, perhaps your chevruta, your spouse or your rabbi.
- Pray and ask Hashem to help you distance yourself from any thoughts or associations that would cause you to be a less effective servant. As you would ask for nullification of the chametz that you did not find, so ask Hashem to nullify any spiritual chametz that you could not locate.
- Burn the list with the chametz! It’s not yours anymore.
Song of Songs Rabba, an early Aramaic commentary that dates back to the Second Temple period, explains and augments the Divine voice stating compassionately, “My children, give me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into an opening through which wagons and carriages will pass.” Here the Holy One is pictured not as a harsh judge, rather as a loving father assisting His children who aspire to imitate his nature. The echoes of this statement can be heard in Yeshua’s gentle admonition that, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Certainly the Messiah was not advocating the self-inflicted poverty; rather he was suggesting a more God approved form of “bookkeeping”, whereby we do not become weighted down by frivolity, self-sufficiency, false piety, base thoughts or unhealthy associations. By removing such excess inventory, we can become “lean and mean” making room for the “treasures of heaven, that can be achieved through the ethical standards of a Torah centered life.