There is an amazing concept in Judaism, one which radically contradicts the spirit of a life based on the hard-won freedoms of the contemporary world, and which would be puzzling to most Westerners. That is, when a person performs a mitzva simply because it is commanded by God, the merit is greater than for one who performs a mitzvah out of other motives alone, even the kindness of their heart.
Ideally, we observe the halachos within their parameters*, not only because are we commanded to, but because we love God and His Torah so much we want to fulfill His will.
Then there is Pesach.
And then there is a Breslov Pesach.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said: “It is written that ever person should choose one observance and keep it very strictly with all its fine points…Even with this observance you should not be abnormally strict to the point of foolishness. Certainly, do not let it make you depressed. Simply keep all its finer points without fanaticism.”*
He also spoke out frequently against all the chumros that people observed on Pesach, which they kept to the point where they would become depressed. He said extreme practices, especially those associated with Passover, were based on confusion and foolishness.
The Rebbe himself had, when he was younger, engaged in many extreme practices (such as strenuous fasting which it is said damaged his health). He even meditated excessively on specific Pesach preparations in his desire to avoid the smallest trace of chometz.
It got so bad that he felt at one point the only way he could guarantee chometz-free water for Pesach would be to travel to a far spring and collect the water from its source, where it had no possible way to be contaminated. (In his day, wells were were often the sole source of potable water, and bread crumbs or other chometz could possibly be dropped into them.)
He got so caught up with these strictures that he even thought about spending a Pesach camped out by the side of a spring! Fortunately for us, the Rebbe understood that this kind of heimish reductio ad absurdum was not what Hashem wants of us.
God Is In The Big Picture, Too, You Know
Because we do have to deal with the details, even the minutiae of Pesach preparations, it can be hard to remember the big picture. Striking the balance between doing each part of the mitzvah as sincerely and completely as we can without working ourselves into states of tension and irritability can happen—after all, we’re human.
Some of us push ourselves to the point of near-perfection, ending up triumphant but drained by the time the holiday comes. Some of us are more relaxed, but then spend the last few days before the holiday busily “catching up” or else find ourselves feeling guilty by the time the first seder comes around.
The Rebbe compares Pesach preparations to the study of dikduk, grammar. He teaches that most people no longer study dikduk because this kind of precision is simply unnecessary. He says: “This is true in all areas. You should not be overly-exacting in seeking out restrictions.”
Those words and the following ones, changed my life!
“True devotion consists mainly of simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah, do many good deeds. Do not worry yourself with unnecessary restrictions. Just follow the way of our forefathers. ‘The Torah was not given to ministering angels.'”
Listen to the words of the Rebbe and make them your own in order to tap into a less fearful, more upbeat way to prepare for Passover.
Personalize Your Prep
A Breslover is happy with where’s she’s at, spiritually speaking, yet also excited to grow. She goes forward step by step (and sometimes takes a half step back), adjusting her balance, and fine-tuning her approach to Jewish observance, without worrying overly about flaws and failings. She keeps in mind that God does not rule over His creatures like a tyrant.*
After all, the overarching mitzva of the Jewish festivals is to celebrate them with joy. Joy is your main spiritual task.
With joy you can attain fresh, new vitality. Rebbe Nachman tells us: “The joy we experience on Pesach, Shavuous, and Sukkos gives us a share in the Inner Light of God. This brings new life to the soul and the mind…”*
Relief that the Pesach prep is over might feel good, but relief is not joy. Joy requires some yishuv hadaas, settled thoughts, peace of mind. If we are frantic, uptight, or overworked it’s nearly impossible to generate the yishuv hadaas we need to tap into our own unique and authentic joy on the holiday.
Here are some thoughts on how to personalize Pesach preparations and prepare for joy:
1. Don’t try to out-frum anyone (I still get chills when I think about rendering shmaltz and eating matza out of plastic bags, with real fear that a drop of water might touch a piece of matza. This might be a joyous expression of hiddur mitzvah for some; for me, not so much.)
2. Sit down (with family members) in advance and make a plan. Keep in mind family or community customs and stringencies, but don’t take on new ones without discussing them with a Rav. If you took on chumros at some point that are making you dread the Yom Tov, discuss this with your Rav. You may be able to stop doing them.
3. Keep your Rav’s phone number handy and don’t be afraid to ask him how you can reduce the workload if you’re feeling over-stressed.
4. Enlist whatever help you are able, free or paid.
5. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else—your Pesach gets to be uniquely yours and your family’s. Don’t let peer pressure be your guide. Don’t try and out-frum anyone or let them out-frum you. You will not be any closer to Hashem if you are tense and miserable (you’ll actually find it harder to connect.)
6. Sell whatever you can. One year I sold a cabinet of kitchen equipment without cleaning it intensively first and lived to tell the tale.
7. Discuss with your spiritual-religious mentor what type of prep and observances are appropriate for you and be sure to confer with your spouse so you are all on the same page.
8. Most people start way ahead of time, but I have one friend who cleans her whole house and preps everything the week before the holiday—this is what works for her. I have another friend who literally starts the day after Chanukah. I’m somewhere in between. It’s okay to do whatever works for you personally.
9. If you enjoy elaborate cooking, write a mise-en-place list, even draw up maps if you like. If you don’t enjoy elaborate cooking, make no-fail recipes that everyone likes.
10. As you prepare, clean, and shop, remember to make time during each day for hisbodedus. Ask Hashem to help you stay focused on the end goal and not get too bogged down in the details. You can also ask Him to help you remember all the details and get them done, too. Whatever you need to do, ask Hashem for help.
11. If you are a list person, make lists. If you aren’t a list person, make at least one list so you don’t forget anything. My main lists are are: Errands (such as dry cleaning), Chores (fixing the handle on the cabinet,), Cleaning (kitchen cabinets, book shelves and books), Shopping (new kitchen towels, groceries, etc.), Menus and Cooking (what I’m serving, what ingredients I’ll need, and when I’ll need to make it), Erev Pesach (what I need to do on the last prep day). This works for me. I also make lists for my husband and now that he’s used to them (it took awhile) he asks for them in advance and puts them into his phone (I prefer a notebook.)
12. Listen to recorded Torah classes or music while you clean and cook, or use that time for a more relaxed approach to hisbodedus. Perhaps listen to songs from the Seder.
13. No matter how busy you are, you might want to find one mitzva, even something tiny, and beautify it (hiddur mitzvah.) This might mean enhancing the mitzvah through a special minhag, custom, or having extra kavana while performing the mitzvah. It might mean tapping into actual physical beauty such as using especially beautiful table settings or painting the dining room. It might mean saying Tehillim out loud rather than silently. It might mean taking the time to go to a park or garden to do hisbodedus. It might even mean going that extra measure and keeping a treasured chumra, but doing it with joy.
14. If you can’t find anything on my list that appeals, ignore the list. Do the mitzvos in the ways that keep you feeling connected, positive, and joyous.
15. Do the mitzvos with truth and simplicity, because they are commanded by Hashem, because you love Him and want to serve Him, is the way to a Breslov Pesach.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Raizel Chana bas Chava
*Many mitzvos have specific time, place, and even gender requirements, and when we perform a mitzvah in a way which is not required of us, we are performing it out of self-gratification, not love of Hashem.
*Avoda Zara 3a
*Likutey Eitzos (Advice)
Based on Sichos HaRan (soon available in a new edition from Breslov.org bookstore–Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom).