Gentiles in North America often don't understand why observant Jews sometimes dread the coming of the next big holiday. After all, in the dominant culture there are very few big holidays that require oodles and oodles of preparation. Maybe X-mas, and for some Thanksgiving and Easter, but the preparations are comparatively brief. There's a big dinner involved, maybe a social event after, and that's it. What's the worst part? Gift shopping?
Now compare that with the Jewish version. Not for nothing did Chazal tell us to start studying the laws of each holiday 30 days before. That was probably their way of trying to limit the insanity of preparing for the High Holidays and, especially, Pesach. After all, if the local supermarket brought in the Pesach stuff the week before Purim, we'd probably all been having matzah-meal humantaschen. Wouldn't that put a damper on the festivities.
Pesach, though, is a very trying time. Just to fulfill the basic requirements of the holiday can take weeks and thousands of dollars in cleaning supplies and help. Given the modern tendency towards accumulation of pretty much anything that is on sale and the ever-increasing size of the homes some of us live in, the cleaning job grows year to year. Every year we hear the stories of people who stop taking their Prozac so their obsessive-compulsive traits can get them through the prepatory cleaning. Who hasn't heard the question asked: Are we supposed to clean between the tiles or just fireblast them?
Add to this the recent additions from the chumros-of-the-week club, such as limitations on paper plates, styrofoam cups (!) and the ever increasing number of foods that get labelled as kitniyos (don't even get me started on that one) and it's a wonder that, just before Pesach, the local psychiatry wards aren't filled with neurotic Jews all running up and down the hallways with their brooms and mops chasing that one last dustball the cleaning staff missed. Whoever can bleach the floor tiles until there are holes in it, harei zeh meshubach!
Three years ago I decided that I'd had enough of this. The purpose of cleaning for Pesach is to remove all chometz from our homes, or at least the sections we don't sell through the rav. If it turned into a manic 30 day cleaning marathon, I didn't have to like it. So I took out some money and paid for the family to take a trip to a nearby hotel having a Pesach program. It was a gamble. We weren't sure how it would work or if we'd fit in but after the holiday ended, we decided we had quite liked the experience, so much so that we went to a different one last year just to see how other places ran their programs. This year we're going back to that second program with friends we spent last year with.
And the experience was very nice. The idea that the days leading up to Pesach could be spent engaging not just in cleaning but in spiritual preparation for the holiday of our constipa... freedom is in itself liberating. The seders were relaxed affairs for all involved. No one had to jump up and run into the kitchen to check on the food. No one had to worry about cleaning off the table or putting the dishes in to soak. On Pesach one is supposed to relax and be treated like a free person. By going to this program in a lovely hotel we were able to fulfill that requirement. What's more, we were more able to engage in the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov than the families which stumble across the finish line on seder night barely talking to one another and too stressed to enjoy a moment of the seder.
I was once told by Rav Benjy Hecht that the guiding philosophy of the Chazon Ish was that Torah observance is supposed to be dystonic with human nature. In other words, the phrase "it's hard to be a Jew" is supposed to be an essential part of observance. You're not a real Orthodox Jew if you're happy and well-adjusted, but rather you should feel the struggle all your life with your inner urges to not obey God's laws. having heard this, I came to finally understand why Pesach has turned into such a miserable experience for so many people. Now all the crazy chumros made sense. We were supposed to be miserable as we prepared for Pesach. It was a sign of our true Jewish dedication!
Unfortunately, it also meant that sooner or later someone was going to have something to say about going away for the holidays and now Rav Yonasan Rosenblum has gone and said it:
I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, "What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?" I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list."Pesach in hotels," turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend's central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew's life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the adverstisements, he told me: "No gebrochts" right next to "24 hour tea bar;" "Daily daf hayomi" next to "Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids."
Rav Rosenblum goes further, trying to emphasize the spiritual loss he perceived those who go to hotels suffer:
He related to me the story of one local frum boy who had accompanied his father to sell their chametz . They found the rav's house turned completely upside down for Pesach cleaning. On the way out, the boy asked his father why the rav's house was in such turmoil. He had never in his life seen, much less participated, in cleaning for Pesach. That boy, my friend lamented, cannot possibly connect to the idea that Pesach cleaning parallels an inner process of removing the se'or she'b'isa – the physicality and inner materialism that holds us back in our performance of Hashem's commandments. His experience of Pesach has nothing to do with destroying the chametz either within or without.
Finally, he brings in the ultimate argument - the disconnect from tradition:
When we gather in our homes around the festively decorated Pesach table, with the special dishes taken down just one week a year, and contemplate the freshly scrubbed homes over which we have labored so diligently, we link ourselves to all the generations of our ancestors. We may no longer exchange our old dirt floor for a new one every year at Pesach time, as they did in Europe. But if those ancestors could return to observe our preparations for Pesach, they would recognize their descendants and feel comfortable joining us for Seder. It more doubtful they would recognize us gathered around a hotel buffet table – even if we were wearing a shtreimel and bekeshe .
I can only say that I strongly disagree with Rav Rosenblum's points, one and all.
First, the idea that spending time in a hotel instead of one's home is somehow more materialistic is foolish. There are, broadly speaking, two groups of people when preparing for Pesach is an issue: those who can afford to spend lots of money and those who can't. For the latter group, going away isn't an option. However for the former group, the choice comes down to either spending lots of money to clean one's home, buy one's food and prepare one's holiday meals, or plunk a lump sump down and just go to the hotel where it's all done in advance without the stress. And if you put the tallies from the two options together, you might just discover there isn't much of a difference between them. More materialistic in the hotel? How about the brand new matzah cover Fishel just brought back from his recent trip to Israel, the one gilted with actual gold? Or the uber-expensive kiddush cups? Or the hoity-toidy silverware and china plates? Or the new suits and dresses? A seder at home can be just as gashmius-driven as at a hotel but with one important exception. After the hotel seder, my wife and I can go to sleep. At home we're up for a couple of hours putting everything away.
The story about the boy who had never seen real Pesach cleaning is also, to be polite, crap. One must still clean one's house before Pesach even if one is going off to a hotel. You just don't have to blowtorch the stove. The Rav's house was turned upside down? And what was the point of that? In case a tiny crumb of chometz found its way into a dark corner no one goes near in the first place? Most of what we call Pesach cleaning has nothing to do with Pesach and everything to do with a fear of not doing as much as our neighbours and having them think we really didn't get ready for the holiday properly.
Finally, his assertion that our ancestors from a few generation ago would recognize a seder at home more than at a hotel is bupkiss. There is a common Chareidi revisionist belief that our ancestors were happy living in homes with dirt floors and scrubbing the lice-infected scabs off their bodies every Friday afternoon in preparation for Shabbos. They might not have had the material wealth we do but, gosh darn it, they had a spirituality we couldn't imagine.
Right. I am willing to bet that if anyone went back in time and found one of our ancestors out there pulling a heavy cart along a muddy road as the local Cossacks ransack his village and ask him straight out: Pesach at home or in a fancy schmancy hotel, that he'd grab the second option with both hands and no second thoughts. If they didn't engage in materialism, it's because they didn't have materials in the first place. To ascribe anything else to them is to be patronizing.
In the end, I will take my family away for Pesach. We will be in a calm frame of mind, we will sit and enjoy our seder with our friends, and we will spend Pesach in a state of simchah, secure in the knowledge that our arrangements are allowing us to maximize our time with God and not the vacuum cleaner. That's something any ancestor our mine could understand.