By Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D.
Leaving my warm apartment in Northwest DC this past Monday, I felt the harsh slap of freezing wind on my face. Even with gloves, my fingers felt numb until the car interior slowly warmed as we sped forward, no traffic to be seen on this MLK holiday.
Minutes later, we were at the New York Avenue Men’s Shelter, having volunteered to put a coat of fresh paint on some of the halls and dorms in the building. It was uplifting to see about forty volunteers gathered in the first floor staff lounge, brought together by the amazing folks from the Cafritz Center for Social Responsibility of the Edlavitch DCJCC. Our group comprised people of many ages, from teens to seniors.
After a brief orientation, we were ready to begin. We were led through the dining area, where dinner is served every night and up the stairs, to the dorms.
We divided up into groups to wash the walls and the baseboards, the doors and the light switches, the bedframes and the outlets, after which the painting would begin. For the next several hours, I was part of the cleaning brigade. It is with some hesitation that I write that one of the more jarring experiences was the smell. It was the smell of unwashed bodies, old clothes, urine and feces and garbage. I write this not as a denigration of either the staff of the shelter or the clients. Rather, it is an indictment of ourselves and our frayed social network, that so many human beings don’t have access to the most rudimentary necessities of hygiene in our “great” society.
Initially, I had hoped that I would get to paint. I love painting, and the joy that comes from seeing the freshly painted walls. But the more time I spent cleaning, seeing the grit dissolve and eventually disappear, the easier it was to let go of that still small wish. I had not volunteered to have fun. I had volunteered to be of service.
The dirt was ground in deeply. I pushed myself to clean more fiercely. As my cleaning became more focused and perhaps, frenzied, I thought of preparing for Passover, especially the meticulous cleaning inside the oven or in the crevices of the refrigerator. I couldn’t shake the feeling.
When I clean for Passover, most superficially, I am searching for and removing chametz, leavened food products, like bread or cake crumbs. But the Rabbis have taught us that this search for chametz is actually meant to be a metaphor for a more profound, spiritual cleansing of ourselves. Chametz represents arrogance or puffed up self-importance. As we search the cabinets, we have the opportunity and time to search our souls.
Preparing for Passover is the part of an entire system of mitzvot or commandments that we, as Jews, are obliged to perform. It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wisely noted, “The purpose of the commandments is not to perform an act, but to transform a person.”
Somehow, at the NY Avenue Men’s Shelter, I felt transformed. I felt the imperative to search my soul as I cleaned. To search for my role in this society, for my responsibility in transforming the darkness that is in this world.
As Dr. King, wrote
“All this is to simply say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly; affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars….. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
There are additional connections between MLK Day and Passover. Both the Reverend King’s glorious oratory and the timeless narrative of the Passover Haggadah speak of the difficult work on the journey to freedom. And the great joy when we reach the Promised Land.
It is an oft-told story that Rabbi Heschel, who marched together with Dr. King, had invited the Reverend King and his family to join Heschel and his family for Passover in 1968. Dr. King had agreed to attend Rabbi Heschel’s Seder. But it was not to be. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on April 4, 1968, a day of national tragedy. Less than a week later, April 12, 1968, was the first night of Passover.
I often think that “Passover is coming!” in the days after the celebration of Purim. But this past week has changed my perspective. Our thoughts of Passover can begin to blossom in the dark days of winter, while we take time to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr with a day of service.
It is a day we can remember our dreams, our goals, our life’s purpose. We are here to “pray with our feet” and our hands and our votes and our service.
Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D. is a psychologist and writer. She is the author of “When the Hurricane Came” and “When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing with Shiva and the Year Beyond.”