April 11, 2024
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April 11, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I am not much of a chumra guy myself, I readily admit. Not year round, and not on Pesach. I find basic Halacha challenging enough. Especially the parts about being nice to people and being thankful and appreciative each day. Why would I need to adopt more prohibitions? Isn’t Judaism hard enough? Isn’t life itself hard enough?

But I also know that on Pesach a lot of people who feel the same as me about chumrot year-round, if not more so, suddenly take a different view. They are looking for KP symbols on their plasticware and plates. They don’t look like chassidim, but are eschewing any gebrochts, (matzah that has absorbed liquid). In some neighborhoods, you can feel palpable anxiety descending all around in the weeks before Pesach, due to fear of normally batel, insignificant, chametz crumbs hiding somewhere in the house.

Last Pesach, a friend in an Anglo Modern Orthodox community in Israel was enumerating to me the many chumrot people of his acquaintance take on for Pesach. Some of these I never even heard of. It started me wondering why this would be. Why would my fellow-travelers of the easier path uncharacteristically veer off to the harder road at this time each year?

Last Pesach also happened to be the time when the sensational court case between Hollywood movie stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard was playing out for all the world to see—whether the world wanted to see it or not. While the parties disputed whether and who actually physically abused whom, the parties acknowledged a long list of other violent and self-destructive behavior. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, property destruction; the whole gamut.

These were people who had it all, along with the freedom to do anything they want that comes with talent, fame, fortune and good looks. Johnny Depp was even long viewed as more intelligent than the average actor—bringing a historically-informed imagination to the roles he played. But not intelligent enough, apparently, to avoid the same traps of so many predecessors. For although the trial meant this played out with more public detail than usual, Hollywood train wrecks are, of course, nothing new. They have been around since silent film star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of accidentally smothering someone back in 1921. And the former child star gone off the rails has unfortunately been seen as the rule, not the exception.

In thinking about this trial on Pesach, any student of mussar worth his salt can see the too-often-repeated lesson: even a good thing, such as freedom, can be misused. It can even be a burden. If we are not prepared to control ourselves in the face of freedom, we can end up enslaving ourselves to our own weaknesses and natural vices. I think the starting point of mussar, in fact, is that we are all human and prone to human failings. But that is not an excuse for poor behavior. It is a warning that we must prepare and improve ourselves to handle our freedom, and know ourselves so that we may avoid situations that we cannot handle.

This lesson is not limited to the mussarniks of course. Back in 1580, the first essayist of the modern era, Michel de Montaigne, wrote his “Of the Education of Children” warning of the moral dangers of too much freedom. Political economists speak of the “resource curse” or “paradox of plenty” that makes countries blessed with an abundance of natural resources the most prone to corruption.

Pesach celebrates freedom. But with freedom comes a risk. We cannot reject the risk of freedom, but we must manage the risk, knowing our own human weaknesses. And even though I may not face any temptation to trash my multi-million dollar yacht like Johnny Depp might, we all have a little diva inside of us waiting to get out, and I might still think I am free to talk to people at home in a harsher way than I would ever think myself free to talk to people at work. After the trial, I now better understand Pesach chumrot as a way of reminding ourselves of the risks of freedom, even as we celebrate it. I can see now why people embrace them, even as I still continue to eat my gebrocht matzah balls.

Dan Barenholtz is a corporate tax and governance professional at Morgan Stanley. He can be reached – for any critiques – at [email protected].

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