Be prepared


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares how to reflect on both the physical and spiritual aspects of readiness through the lens of the upcoming holiday of Passover.

Subscribe to this podcast

I was a Boy Scout as a kid, and the Boy Scout motto has always stuck with me: Be Prepared. While I’d call myself pretty good at being mentally prepared for what life hands me, I don’t consider myself so great at other kinds of preparation.

(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

There are a lot of nights when dinnertime rolls around and I’m scrambling to figure out what to eat. I do plenty of last-minute packing for trips. And I never give myself enough time to prepare for big projects. Despite my many years of Scouting, preparation is still a growing edge for me. 

Maybe you’re like me, or maybe you’re one of those people who gets to the airport six hours before your flight.

You might be the kind of person who has spreadsheets for big projects — you’ve Gantt charted the party you’re hosting next weekend; you’re the person everyone looks to to coordinate logistics; you have lists for your lists.

If you’re not this kind of person, I bet you know someone who is — experts in preparation.

Well, I have news: Passover is coming. And Passover is an invitation to all of us to up our preparation game (or to find that awesome logistics coordinator you know and have them help you — seriously, if this isn’t already a business, it should be. I’ll take a 10 percent cut, thank you).

Walk through grocery stores where Jews live right now and you’ll see matzah and grape juice and all sorts of kosher-for-Passover items in a special section. Why? Because the stores know that it’s Passover prep season: Time to shop and cook for the big meals to come. 

But preparation for Passover doesn’t only happen in the kitchen. One of the foundational mitzvot, or special practices of Passover, is to get rid of all the hametz, or leavened products, in our homes before the holiday even starts.

And hametz can be all over our homes: bread crumbs that got into a book you were reading; a pretzel that got stuck in the couch cushions during your Super Bowl party; a bottle of beer (yes, beer) you forgot was out in the garage. 

For me, this generates one of the practices I most value about Passover: It leads me to do an annual check-in with my consumption.

I have to go through the fridge, the freezer, the pantry and see what food I’ve really eaten this year — and what food I forgot about or just put there, while suppressing the little voice inside my head that knew better and said, “You know you’re never going to eat that, right?” It leads me to give away food that I’ve either over-purchased or just know I can live without. It leads me, at least for a while, to be more mindful about my consumption.

And because that process — along with planning for the seder, planning for meals, cleaning, shopping, and cooking — since all that takes way more time than I can pull off at the last minute, it also leads me to be mindful about my approach to Passover.

I wind up mapping out tasks on a calendar, thinking about how to most effectively and wisely do the work required — being mindful of the number of hours in the day, the energy I’ll have, what my body can take, what the rest of my household will need and be capable of. I just feel more in touch with everything going on in the weeks leading up to Passover, and I like that.

And yet, as much preparation as I do, it’s never really enough. Every Passover, I feel like I find some piece of hametz in the house that I didn’t realize was there (seriously, those friggin’ pretzels).

And that’s where an additional element of spiritual meaning comes in. The ancient rabbis of the Talmud open their discussion about Passover with a question: How far do we have to go in searching for hametz before the holiday?

Do you need to search in every nook and cranny — even into places you know would basically be impossible for a crumb to get into? What happens, they ask, if a mouse moves some crumbs from one room to another? Do you have to worry about that? And they offer a wonderful answer: At a certain point, you need to say “enough,” because otherwise, ein l’davar sof: there will never be an end to it. 

I think there’s so much wisdom in this approach. Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of preparing–whether it was writing a term paper in high school or planning a party in college or making some big presentation at work as a grownup — I can become consumed by perfectionism.

Perhaps you’re like that too. It’s a kind of shadow side of preparation: While preparing gives us more time to be ready for when the big moment arrives, it can also lead us into overstressing and becoming over-anxious.

So those wise rabbis give us permission: We’re not God; we are human. We have limits. And we have to acknowledge and embrace those limits — otherwise we aren’t liberating ourselves from anything; we’re just enabling our anxiety to constrict us even more.

This episode is airing a few weeks before Passover — the season when we can really start to prepare. And the wonderful opportunity for us now is to prepare both physically and spiritually.

So here’s a practice I want to invite you to do, with the understanding that this preparatory work will, in a few weeks, come to an end–and that our preparations will have been enough. This isn’t a contest or a competition. It’s just a wonderful opportunity.

The practice I want to share is a unique kind of journaling practice. Over the coming weeks, try to find a few minutes a few times a week, or every day if you can, to reflect on the hametz, the puffed-up leavened stuff that’s in your emotional and spiritual life right now.

You can think of spiritual hametz as anything that’s blocking you from living in alignment with your deepest and truest values and commitments.

One piece of spiritual hametz might have to do with a relationship you have with a friend or loved one; another might have to do with how you relate to your phone or social media.

For each item, see if you can give it a name and write it down on a small piece of paper, with a label like, “Phone addiction” or “Quickness to anger.” Each day, put your latest piece of paper–your spiritual hametz–in a container (a bowl, a tupperware, a hat). The container will start to fill up.

On the night before Passover starts, there’s a custom to search for real hametz inside our homes. (You can find directions for it in most Haggadahs. We’ll also put a link to instructions in the show notes.)

On the following morning — the morning of the seder — the custom is to burn that hametz–like, literally, burn it in a fire or on a grill.

What I want to invite you to do is to take those pieces of paper, put them in a paper bag, and burn them too. (Returning to where we started: I was a Boy Scout, so here’s your reminder to practice fire safety.) Maybe take a moment before you put the bag on the fire and read each slip aloud to yourself.

You can even say a version of the prayer that’s traditionally recited when we burn the hametz: May all of this hametz, and all the hametz I know is there but didn’t find — may I be liberated from it. May I no longer own it, and may it no longer own me.

May all of us experience liberation and freedom from our spiritual hametz this year. May all of us be free.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.