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The "What's" of Pesach

Pesach is in one week.


Wow what a statement. How did you feel reading that? Probably super excited and comforted and really at peace, right? Ha ha. That was a joke.


The truth is most of us feel a lot of anxiety come up when we read that statement. Because when we think of Pesach coming, we think of stress. We think of all the work that needs to get done. We think about the cooking and the cleaning and the shopping. We think of the complicated family dynamics we will inevitably have to face. And then, once we get through those difficult few weeks leading up to Pesach, we have to actually go through Pesach. And that can be an entirely different hurdle. First of all there are all those meals with all of that matzah doing wonders to our stomachs. Then, we have disruptions to our sleep schedules, staying up until the wee hours of the morning on Seder night(s). And through all of that we are supposed to feel like we, Jews living in the 21st century with our phones and cars and AI, were also slaves in ancient Egypt. Understandably, many people feel overwhelmed.


And isn’t that sad? Pesach in essence is a beautiful chag that we celebrate to remember how much Hashem actively loves us, His chosen nation, and how we were miraculously saved after years of immense suffering and slavery. Somewhere along the way, our connective, rejuvenating, and joyful Pesach became a major source of distress for so many people. 


So I was thinking about this in terms of what I’ve been learning as the undergraduate intern here at the CBT/DBT center. In my previous post I wrote about how DBT strongly emphasizes the practice and utilization of mindfulness, and how it essentially helps us become more aware of and connect to what is going on in our minds and in our environments at a given moment. The reason DBT utilizes mindfulness so much is because it is an extremely helpful tool that helps regulate our behaviors, emotions, and sensitivities, while also enabling us to choose more effectively. So obviously practicing mindfulness would be beneficial in managing the holiday stress. However, upon closer examination I realized there’s a lot more of a connection between mindfulness and Pesach.


Practically, mindfulness is broken up into two groups of skills, the “what” skills and the “how” skills. “What” skills refer to the skills we utilize to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment and “how” skills refer to how we do those skills in a non-judgemental, one-mindful, and effective way. So, as I was getting into the Pesach mindset and mode, I realized that not only would the “what” skills ease the stress that often comes along with the chag, but that the entire concept of the “what” skills strongly correlates with the process of Pesach. And if we truly tap into each stage of Pesach through a lens of mindfulness, then perhaps we’d be able to diminish some of the stress. 


What do I mean by this? Well, I would say the first stage of Pesach is when we first realize that Pesach is coming (otherwise known as the oh-my-gosh-Pesach-is-coming stage). We all have those moments when Pesach first begins to creep into our minds and remind us of its existence and the preparation needed for it. It’s even brought down that we are supposed to begin learning the halachos of Pesach 30 days before the start of Pesach as a way of preparation. It’s almost as if those 30 days before is the marker of the first stage when we take in our environment and realize Pesach is on the way.


Interestingly, the first stage of the “what” skills is called Observe. It’s the stage where we try to take in our environment using only our five senses. In Observe, we try to refrain from labeling. We try to notice what is happening around us without categorizing it in our brains. If someone was observing a painting, he or she would simply take it in without labeling it in the brain with thoughts such as  “this is a tree”, “this is a mountain”, or “this is water”. Why is Observe done this way? Because it helps us separate what we are experiencing from our experience of something- a slight but significant distinction. 


And isn’t that what we’re doing when we first realize Pesach is coming up? We observe what’s going on around us. Purim just passed, we’re in April. This is often right about the time that panic ensues. Oh my gosh what do you mean Pesach is coming?! That’s it! Bread, cookies, and anything that makes crumbs is hereby banned from this household. And actually, they’re all banned from outside the house too just in case the crumbs stick to the bottom of your shoes and you drag them in when you come inside. 


Imagine when you first realized Pesach is coming that you didn’t think anything. Only that Pesach was coming. Imagine you just sat with that thought without any labels of “that means we have to clean” or “better start making my grocery list now”. It wouldn’t have to be stressful.


Ok so maybe we can ease the stress when we first realize Pesach is coming but what about the second stage? The second stage in the Pesach process is the prep. It’s the stage where we take stock of what needs to get done. Make the grocery list, see who’s coming for the meals, which part of my house do I tackle first to clean. Some may argue this is the stage that is inevitably stressful. It’s hectic, the kids are off from school, and there’s so very much to do.


The second stage in mindfulness is called Describe, where we categorize that which we just observed. This is when we do look at a painting and say “tree, mountain, water.” And, we can practically describe what is needed next for Pesach by making lists and starting chores. In the Describe stage, we do actually label everything which we just observed. The reason we first observe and then describe is because we want to try to absorb our environments and thoughts as objectively as possible (which is why we initially refrain from labeling). However, once we take everything in, we want to describe our experiences as a way to distinguish what we observed from what we didn’t so that we can view reality as accurately as possible. Notice, however, that the word here is specifically “describe”. We only want to describe our experiences. We do not want to judge them. And what does it mean to “judge”? People often think judging means thinking negative thoughts about something or someone, which it definitely could be. However, judging encompasses a lot more. Judging is asserting our own opinions onto someone or something else. So, if someone wants to describe a painting, he or she won’t be using words such as “good”, “bad”, “pretty”, “comforting” etc. because those are judgment words, those are a person’s opinions of the painting. 


Similarly, if someone wants to describe, let's say what they need to do for Pesach, they need not also assert their judgments. Yes, you might notice that Pesach is coming up which means it’s time to start tackling some of the pre-Pesach jobs. You may need to make a grocery list, start cleaning the basement, and buy the kids new shoes. But if we are trying to just describe, then we are simply describing the experience as it is in the moment, excluding any preexisting judgements we have about it. When we describe without judgments, that whole process doesn’t need to be stressful because it may not be what we are actually feeling at that moment.


Mindfulness can be such a useful tool in fully experiencing Pesach for all it can offer us. Even more so, I believe one can see it as an intrinsic part of Pesach. In a way, Pesach can be seen as one huge mindfulness practice that is naturally integrated into our yearly schedule. And contrary to what we might have always believed, Pesach doesn’t have to be something we dread. In the next post I’ll discuss the last stage of the “what” skills, Participate, and how it connects to Seder night. For now, let’s try to engage in and practice our Observe and Describe skills. When we engage in anything mindfully, there’s more room for enjoyment. When we are fully present in the moment, allowing the moment to be as is, it often can lead to a lot of gratitude and connection. In a case such as Pesach, a time when there’s already so much intrinsic simcha-potential, mindfulness can most definitely help increase our engagement and enjoyment.


Stay tuned for the next post with the third and final stage in our Pesach journey!


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