I knew from the start that the title of this would be, "Queen Esther Cleans for Pesach," but the story's execution was giving me trouble. No matter how I kept plugging away, the parts weren't coming together. I had the beginning, I had the end. I knew what I wanted to say. But something was missing, which turned out to be myself.
Purim was over and I wanted to get the story down in black and white before starting to clean. So I rescheduled an upcoming dentist appointment until after Pesach -- poor teeth, they'd just have to wait (not that they'd consider it a sacrifice) -- and that Monday morning at 9 a.m., was ensconced with my laptop in my favorite corner of a Jerusalem coffee-shop. With whipped cream and cappuccino, and with my back to the world, all the usual background noise would keep me from getting restless.
The article, at that point, read as follows:
As anyone who has ever cleaned for Pesach can testify, the three or four weeks leading up to the Seder Night provide us with myriad opportunities for losing our tempers, if not our minds. What is it about this season's particular combination of perfectionist cleaning, spiritual aspirations, and overwhelming exhaustion that can turn us simultaneously into downtrodden slaves, like our ancestors in Egypt, and hard-hearted taskmasters, not unlike Pharaoh? The Ten Days of Repentance before Yom Kippur may well be Judaism's traditional time for self-examination, but for some truly riveting encounters with our own worst selves, and greatly expanded powers for making everyone in the family miserable, the days before Pesach take the cake.
Chametz seemed inappropriate here. I deleted the cake and continued on.
But unlike our forbears in Egypt, whose suffering was painfully intensified by the fact that they themselves didn't benefit from anything they accomplished, we in our times celebrate this Festival of Freedom in our own Jewish homes.
Cleaning for Pesach without losing one's temper can involve a real kind of heroism.
The point I wanted to make eventually was that cleaning for Pesach without losing one's temper can involve a real kind of heroism, not unlike Queen Esther's. But I was finding it hard to bring it all together.
We humans feel stirred by heroism, and like seeing evidence of it in ourselves and others. While we may react with envy to the successes and accomplishments of our fellow man, our involuntary response when it comes to heroism is – more often than not – to take a personal kind of pride in the other one's deed. We ourselves feel ennobled by it, as if his astounding act of kindness, or selflessness, or generosity, his purity of spirit, his dignity in the face of insult, his idealism, his brav--
My cell-phone rang.
It was Lily, a close friend of mine from Manhattan who had moved to Israel in the 1990s. A profoundly gentle, dignified, wise, discrete, sensitive, insightful person, single and in her mid-fifties and loved deeply by her friends, Lily was in remission at the time from a life-threatening illness. "Can I ask you something?" she said hesitantly. "Where are you now?"
"In a coffee shop."
"Oh. Look. Please be honest...tell me if you can't..." She explained that something had come up with her immigration and she was getting a little overwhelmed. She needed help with some paperwork. It had to be someone who lived here and was familiar with this country, and she had to get it done right away. She'd tried everyone she could think of who didn't work in the morning, but they were all either unavailable or hadn't answered their phones. "I hate to bother you," she said. "But the woman in the office there --" Was that Lily's voice breaking? -- "told me to get it back to them by 5 or they might not be able to process my American social security in time for April."
Lily had always refrained, more than most people, from imposing on others. In our 15 years of friendship, it was the first time I could recall her asking me for a favor. My initial reaction was of course, come right now. Then I started thinking about the cleaning I really should have been doing at home...and the dentist appointment I'd canceled, all so I could get this story finished. I have no way of knowing what my tone of voice was but I said, "Yes, of course."
"Really? It's okay?"
Then she said that when I got there, I should buzz her on the intercom and she'd come down and let me in.
I was taken aback. This was not what I expected. Would it be responsible of me or irresponsible, an act of self-respect or of selfishness, to ask her now to come to me, instead? My conscience instructed, Be to all as the dust, but America whispered in my ear: That's going too far, it's unnecessary. Respect yourself. You can be a helpful friend without ignoring your own needs. I said, "Lily, do you think maybe you can come here, to the coffee shop?"
A moment of silence, then: "Where are you, darling?"
"Never mind!" I blurted out, having distinctly heard in her voice that this was somehow problematic. "I'll come to you!" But going there was problematic for me. Wasn't that also legitimate? I hoped she'd say no, she would come here.
"No, no, it's okay," she told me. "I'll come to you. Why should you come all the way over here? Tell me where you are. I just have to get ready."
We hung up and I figured I had about a half-hour to get something done until she arrived. Back to the screen:
We humans feel stirred by heroism, and like seeing it in ourselves and others. While we may react with envy to the successes and accomplishments of our fellow man, our involuntary response when it comes to heroism is – more often than not – to take a personal kind of pride in the other one's deed. We ourselves feel ennobled by it. It's as if his astounding act of kindness, or selflessness, or generosity, his purity of spirit, his dignity in the face of insult, his idealism, his bravery, were revealing something about us, and it's thrilling. It serves as evidence of higher things in the outer reaches of our own human nature, which -- like stars on a sunny day – usually remain invisible in the course of our daily lives.
Daily life – the term refers almost by definition to a humdrum business. When it's not dark you don't need stars. When there's no great conflict to speak of and things are basically going along as you'd expect, there doesn't seem to be anything that great to overcome.
But if you're walking along a beach one day and hear a drowning child's cries, the hero within may come suddenly to life and before you know it, you're leaping into the sea.
Had the emergency not been sent your way – and this conflict of interest never arisen – your capacity for heroism might never have become visible. If the crisis had occurred but you'd simply not noticed, you would have missed your chance.
With a fleeting gesture of self-erasure, you've transcended in an instant the imprisoning self-image of a lifetime.
You, too, can soar.
I liked that last line. Any flight (other than the kind that requires getting into an airplane) appeals to me. All that remained was to explain the connection between the various themes. Once again I began searching for words to convey that it's precisely in erev Pesach's capacity to bring out the worst in us that its power to liberate us lies; that it's precisely when our goodwill and energy are at a low ebb that we can most benefit by going against the grain and behaving with dignity. Such opportunities to build ourselves are thrown our way day after day, constantly, all year long, but during the weeks leading up to Pesach, daily life is rich with them, and they're more noticeable.
The unique manner in which this season tests our behavior towards others is precisely that which makes it the year's supreme chance to grow spiritually in leaps and bounds. We can participate in Queen Esther's rescue of her people on the miniature stage of our individual private lives, with the family and friends with whom we're ordained to interact.
If, under erev Pesach's intense emotional and physical pressure, we still strive to be scrupulously careful with the honor of our fellow men – to treat those in our family as we would our friends, and our friends as if they were family -- then the external process will be an internal one, too, and by the time our cleaning is done, it will be not only the closets that are in order but our minds, not only the windows that are clear but our conscience, not only the rooms that seem full of light but our hearts...not only the kitchens that have been "turned over" but ourselves.
There's an old saying: you can have home improvement or self-improvement – you can't have both. In the tension-filled interlude before Pesach, however, the two are potentially one and the same. All the mundane practical details of daily life can serve as spiritual instruments of the highest order. If we have borne in mind the idea – while sentenced to four weeks at hard labor -- that it's not only our arrival at the destination (of a clean house) which matters but who we become in the process...if we have tried to remember that the goal is to be as flat and humble as matzah – which means rising higher by lowering ourselves... then when we sit down at the Seder table with Hagadahs in hand, our joy will be in exact proportion to the difficulties we have experienced along the way to this moment. Transcending our small, limited egos will have been at least as high a priority for us as organizing the closets.
We will have crossed the desert, and reached the Promised Land.
* * *
I looked at my watch. More than an hour had passed. Hey! Where's Lily?
I was hit by foreboding.
I dialed her number. No answer. I dialed her cell-phone. The voicemail came on. I left a message to please call right away, I was waiting.
Five minutes went by. Ten. I tried both numbers. I kept trying, and was dialing again when my eyes alighted upon the computer screen.
If you're walking along a beach one day and hear a drowning child's cries...
From the screen my words were staring at me, glaring at me. They slapped my face.
Something dawned on me.
...the hero within may come suddenly to life and before you know it, you're leaping into the sea.
Shame and repugnance rose up in me sharply. I kept dialing. No answer. From the screen my words were staring at me, glaring at me. They slapped my face. The minutes piled up. I called Rabbi S., told him everything. "What should I do?"
"Go," he said.
"Even though she's not answering at home? Maybe it'll just be a waste of ti—"
I rushed out to the street. My computer backpack weighed me down. There were no taxis. The ones that passed were occupied, and besides, traffic here was one-way, the wrong way. I started running. Running, running. Trying to shed the weight of my self-contempt.
My hypocrisy was staggering.
So easy to talk about what's right. Just doing it that's difficult.
Running, running. I could delete this story. But if she wasn't home, how would I escape myself?
* * *
Buzzed on the intercom. Buzzed again. Again. I knocked on the glass door. Knocked again.
Out on the sidewalk next to her building, back in the sun, I started begging. Please, God. Please. Let me find her.
Far off down the sidewalk, a little walking figure appeared, receding in the opposite direction. It was going farther away, getting smaller, and something about it brought Lily to mind. I started running. Could it be?
Coming up from behind, I wasn't sure -- the frail woman was so bent-over – but called out, "Lily?"
She turned slowly and at first I couldn't recognize her. Her face was ashen-grey, her eyes swollen and red. She'd been crying.
"Why didn't you come to the coffee shop?" I was out of breath.
"Oh, it's ok, mammele. I was too -- It was too much for me to go to you so I found one of the neighbors and she helped me instead and I'm just on my way back now to that office. I'm sorry I didn't call to tell you. I wasn't thinking. I just --" She looked as if she were on the verge of collapse.
She delivered the document, then we went out to eat together, which appeared to revive her somewhat, and soothed my conscience.
So...that's how the story ends, though this is the second erev Pesach that has come and gone since our hour together at a restaurant downtown, and it's only now that I finished writing it up. Lily's faint, sweetly strained smile and startlingly gaunt appearance across from me at a lunch table are recorded in memory, and she died of her illness not long thereafter, but it wasn't something I particularly wanted to write about, or even recall: how I did jump into the sea that day, but was a little late, and only saved myself.