He is a character from a story I’ve read, but I can only recall the description of his humble, bearded image, not the plot in which he finds himself a player. He comes and goes, an apparition here to foretell or forewarn, and each time I see him, that is precisely what he does.
We share an annual ritual, he and I, in the kosher aisle of our local market. On an inclement February day, while filling my cart with reinforcements for an impending snowstorm, I spot him — without warning — out of the corner of my eye.
Flanked by boxes of jarred gefilte fish and crumb cake mix, he is lining just-emptied shelves with white Kraft paper. My heart leaps out of my chest. I ask, “Already?” He nods, offering me a soothing uh-huh.
He smiles, I smile, and in that instant everything begins to change, just as his presence suggests.
A little panic creeps in, but still, my wintry thoughts leap to tulips and shmurah matzah. Like the daffodils steadily climbing out of the frozen earth, Pesach has begun its slow emergence into the natural cycle of the Jewish year.
I share knowing looks with other women anxious about the Everest of preparations that lies ahead. In a friendly game of one-upmanship, we compare menus that could feed an entire shtetl and map out intricate cleaning strategies. We wonder how we will manage to do it all. But it is just a dance, because we will surely be ready when we sit down for the first seder.
Driven by sepia memories of childhood Pesach celebrations, we will turn our houses upside down, searching for signs of anything leavened. We will grate the horseradish by hand, polish the silver, and iron the table linens. Then we will shop our way down extensive lists while we carry on with the rest of our lives, as if we straddled two parallel worlds.
In the market, the bearded man appears on the pretense of stocking the shelves with kneidlach mix. His eyes seem to say, Go on. It will all be good. This time, though, he has come to forewarn me not to sweep an opportunity out the door with the chametz crumbs that linger beneath the sofa.
A reminder of the spiritual depths to which we sunk in Egypt as a people in bondage, chametz tells it to us straight: Pharaoh may have enslaved our bodies, but the undoing of our souls was of our own making. Until we clear out the leavening within ourselves — our egos, our impatience, our unwillingness to let offenses go — we remain in chains.
So I set to cleaning, because we must free ourselves by seder night in order to dine like kings and queens. I toss past-date items from the back of the freezer, and with them, any grudges. I separate spring cleaning from Pesach cleaning, and learn to turn the other cheek at slight offenses in the process.
As I do, I speak with God. While we are talking, I share my usual worries and concerns — about my children, about the future. I ask for a few favors, too. But I also seek forgiveness, for it has been a while since Yom Kippur, and then I forgive myself.
When I am at last ready for the holiday to begin, I will be exhausted, and I will wonder what it might be like to spend Pesach in a hotel on the beach. I will waffle between joy and angst over the arrival of company and will revisit in my mind every disaster — from the culinary to the interpersonal — from Passovers past.
Though it will all be good, just as the apparition foretold, the eight days will end in an instant. In the market, the shelves will once again be transformed, the white kraft paper gone. At home, I will restock the pantry with pasta and pretzels, and perhaps this time around, none of the petty disappointments that filled the cabinets last year.
I will look for the bearded man, knowing that he is already gone. Slowly, before I even sense what is happening, his message will also begin to recede from memory. He will have gone off to do what he does all year, returned to the story I can only vaguely recall, leaving me to the business of managing my own soul.
Merri Ukraincik is a freelance writer and an artist in New Jersey. She blogs at http://mypaperedworld.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.