Making Pesach with our Hands (Ideas #106)

It is well-known that many great rabbis went out of their way to make physical preparations for Shabbat. Some would involve themselves with food preparation and others with preparing the home. Although lovely anecdotes about the importance of Shabbat, these stories seem counter-intuitive, would not these great rabbis have done better to study, pray or meditate to prepare for Shabbat?


A similar question exists in our preparations for Pesach. The rabbinically ordained requirement to search our homes for chametz may seem like a terribly pedestrian way to prepare for the holiday. In fact, it seems downright counterproductive. All the physical preparations really get in the way of having time to sit down and think about the deep meaning of Pesach.


Of course, part of the problem may be in how we relate to our bodies, or perhaps better still, how we do not relate to our bodies. Such thinking is in line with the question posed by many religious philosophers, especially in the Western tradition, as to why G-d would create man with a body. At best, the body just takes orders from our minds to accomplish good acts, like visiting the sick or bowing before G-d. At worst, the needs of the body put pressure on our minds to dictate things we know to be unethical and counterproductive. Indeed, from this perspective, G-d’s creation of man with a body requires explanation.


But is such a separation between mind and body so clear? On one level, it is very clear. Our ability to conceptually divide an organism, or any phenomena for that matter, is what allows us to understand how things work. If we have trouble breathing, we correctly know we have to pay attention to the lungs. If our pulse becomes irregular, it has to do with our heart. And if we are depressed, it is usually a matter of the mind. On another level, however, such distinctions mask our true identities. We are neither minds nor bodies – we are both together. As the rabbis homiletically point out, were mind and body to really be distinct, each one could blame the other for our shortcomings. Instead, they point out that it is the entire self, made up of two components as it is, that will be rewarded or punished.


My only living exposure to my rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Rav) was when he was very close to his retirement. It was not the Rav that many others knew. He had already contracted Parkinson’s disease and the Talmudic lectures that he delivered were literally echoes of those that he had delivered in earlier years. So much so, that those students who had notes from the previous occasion he had taught a particular chapter were able to “predict” what he would say. But the Rav was clearly not consciously repeating what he had said several years back. Rather, his was an effortless speech of something etched into his brain – his knowledge had literally become a part of him. Whether he understood what he was saying or not, when he would look at the Talmud, words would simply come out of his mouth – words that formed beautiful and profound constructions of faith through law. But the words were no longer coming from his mind; they were coming from his body. More to the point, his disease had obliterated the distinction between mind and body – mind was body and body was mind.


In a way, it is what we do on “autopilot” that really defines who we are. What do we do automatically without thinking? Do we click on the TV or do we gossip? Do we try to make others happy, or do we busy ourselves with preparations for holy times?


Involving our bodies in the holiness of looking for chametz, or preparing for Shabbat, is something that can become a habit. That is not to say that we should not use our minds to superimpose even greater meaning on these actions while we perform them. But it does mean that accustoming our bodies to do worthwhile things has value unto itself. The same way that thinking correctly, even without deeds, makes us better people, doing correctly, albeit without thoughts, also makes us better people. Thus, we should not resent the “drudgery” of doing, taking us away from the sublime world of thinking, anymore than we should resent the need to think that takes us away from our ability to constantly act.


Descartes famous words, “I think, therefore I am” represent a fatally Western way of looking at ourselves. I am not commenting on whether or not he was correct. Rather, I mean this as an observation about Western man’s complete personal identity with the intellect. When Jewish tradition tells us that doing things that seem menial will sometimes take precedence over spending the time in thought, it is telling us that we are not subsumed by our minds.


 We are both what we think and what we do. Both and at the same time.