I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic "Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius." I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmus he is removed from ruchnius.
I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, "What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?" I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.
"Pesach in hotels," turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend's central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew's life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the adverstisements, he told me: "No gebrochts" right next to "24 hour tea bar;" "Daily daf hayomi" next to "Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids."
"Olympic-size pool," "state-of-the-art-gym" (to work off all the extra pounds from the non-stop eating), "five-star accommodations" and famous singers are de rigueur for the full Pesach experience. And many throw in exotic locations – Hawaii, Cancun, the Bahamas, and an eighteen-hole golf course. What exercised my friend the most was the way that well-known rabbis, and even roshei yeshiva , are impressed into service in the advertisements, as if to put an imprimatur of ruchnius on the festivities.
My friend was raised in a particularly biting style of mussar , and he was just warming to his subject. He described the wailing when the dessert table runs out and the rush forward when the hapless waiter comes with refills and is almost trampled underfoot. Hotels have to put security guards around the 24-hour-tea rooms, lest some poor soul from the hotel down the road, where the dining room closes at 10:00 p.m., cannot make it to breakfast without a late snack.
"The chilul Hashem alone," he said, would be reason enough to close the Pesach extravaganzas. What does the staff at these hotels come to think of frum Jews? That they care only about eating and their holidays are nothing but eat fests? What impression does it make to see a group of pot-bellied men trying to eat their money's worth of food?
He related to me the story of one local frum boy who had accompanied his father to sell their chametz . They found the rav's house turned completely upside down for Pesach cleaning. On the way out, the boy asked his father why the rav's house was in such turmoil. He had never in his life seen, much less participated, in cleaning for Pesach.
That boy, my friend lamented, cannot possibly connect to the idea that Pesach cleaning parallels an inner process of removing the se'or she'b'isa – the physicality and inner materialism that holds us back in our performance of Hashem's commandments. His experience of Pesach has nothing to do with destroying the chametz either within or without.
When we gather in our homes around the festively decorated Pesach table, with the special dishes taken down just one week a year, and contemplate the freshly scrubbed homes over which we have labored so diligently, we link ourselves to all the generations of our ancestors. We may no longer exchange our old dirt floor for a new one every year at Pesach time, as they did in Europe. But if those ancestors could return to observe our preparations for Pesach, they would recognize their descendants and feel comfortable joining us for Seder. It more doubtful they would recognize us gathered around a hotel buffet table – even if we were wearing a shtreimel and bekeshe .
EVEN MY FRIEND recognizes that there are many perfectly legitimate reasons that families might go to hotels for Pesach. Not every set of grandparents can find floor sleeping space in their home for 50 or so descendants. Some older couples are simply not up to the physical exertion of Pesach cleaning, and the same may be true of young mothers just before or after childbirth. Other families may want to spend the holiday in Eretz Yisrael .
For such cases, there should be reasonably priced alternatives. (In Eretz Yisrael , many yeshivos turn their dormitories into Pesach hostels.) But it is not these families that are fueling a hundred million dollar industry, or who have transformed Pesach into a kosher version of spring break for many.
The issue of deluxe Pesach extravaganzas is, in truth, just one more aspect of an ongoing tension in modern Orthodox life. Rabbi Yehoshua Geldzhaler once described to me the pre-war Antwerp Jewry of his youth. During the Three Weeks, he said, you would not see an older Jew smile or engage in any frivolity. The Churban was present for them.
Jews who can really feel the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash are much rarer today. On the other hand, Rabbi Geldzhaler remembers, most of the younger generation in his day was in headlong flight from Yiddishkeit. Today, however, we have made it so much easier to be frum. Our kids can enjoy most of the pleasures of their secular counterparts, and no longer feel the need to rebel to such an extent. Religious observance may not be as internalized as formerly, but at least most of our youth remains within the fold.
It is the task of our rabbonim and roshei yeshiva to elevate our understanding of Pesach to the point that a week-long orgy of eating and fun-activities is self-understood to be a contradiction to the freedom from materialism that the Chag celebrates. But for those who have not yet reached that understanding, it's probably a good thing that the food is glatt.