The Holy Housework of Passover


In this double parsha we read God’s instructions about observing Shabbat and constructing the Mishkan, the Tabernacle (the portable Sanctuary), and its dedication. The Torah discusses at great length the willingness of the Israelites to donate to the construction of the Mishkan, and describes not only their bringing material gifts, but also bringing their willing hearts. Ramban writes that this refers not only to those who did the building but also the weaving and sewing. The obvious question is: the Israelites, when enslaved in Egypt, likely developed building skills, but where would they have learned these other skills? Ramban answers that due to their desire to fulfill God’s will and build the Tabernacle, they found within themselves the ability to do so.

The kind of work they engaged in is characterized by the Hebrew word “melacha.” The rabbis extrapolated that the 39 kinds of work needed to build the Mishkan would be the categories of work not allowed on Shabbat. This work, then, was of a higher order than “avodah,” the word used to describe the work the Hebrew slaves did in Egypt. The two words for work, melacha and avodah, are a reminder that the work connected with building the Mishkan was holy work.

As this Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaChodesh, the time when we bless the new month of Nisan, it is appropriate to connect this concept of holy work to our preparations for Pesach.

Most of us probably look at what we must do to get our homes ready for Pesach as mere drudgery, falling into the category of avodah — “backbreaking” labor, all the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking! And yet, sense the holiness, what I call the “holy housework” involved in getting ready for the holy days. When Pesach was coming, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the chasidic master renowned for his love of the Jewish people, would go and watch the Jewish women toiling, scrubbing, rinsing and chasing after every crumb of chametz. Then he would lift his eyes to Heaven and say, just as on Rosh HaShanah when we ask that the angels born of the shofar blasts — the Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah — should advocate on our behalf: “May it be Your will that the angels born of Toiling, Scrubbing and Tidying come before Your throne of Glory and advocate on our behalf!”

There is one other element we can learn from the building of the Mishkan that is also pertinent to our Passover preparations. We all know that chametz is eradicated from our homes during Pesach. But the rabbis took that one step further and analogized the leaven, the yeast in our foods, to the “leaven” in our hearts. Much as the builders of the Tabernacle came with willing hearts, we also have to approach Pesach with willing hearts, cleansed of the “leaven” of ego, bitterness and negativity. Instead, Passover becomes a moment to turn inward and ask, how can we change and grow without that kind of “leaven”? How can we free ourselves from our internal Mitzrayim (the Hebrew name for Egypt is based on the Hebrew word meaning “narrow straits”), those things that constrict us emotionally and religiously, and instead become better Jews and better human beings?

As we approach Passover this year, it looks increasingly likely that, due to the terrible scourge of the coronavirus, we may not be able to pray together in our synagogues during the holiday or even enjoy large Sedarim. But one thing we will be able to do is emulate our ancestors who built the Mishkan, and create in our homes a “Mikdash Mi’at” (a mini-Sanctuary) filled with willing hearts, hope and fervent prayer, especially for those who are ill and in need of a complete recovery at this difficult time.

Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz is Scholar-in-Residence at Kol HaNeshamah on the Upper West Side, Senior Educator at the Manhattan Jewish Experience and author of “The Jewish Journey Haggadah.”

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 6:50 p.m.

Torah: Exodus 35:1- 40:38;

Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

Havdalah: 7:51 p.m.