My pre-Pesach column "Five-Star Pesach" generated, as expected, a larger than usual number of responses. The issue is a hot-button one for many.
One friend wrote that going away to a hotel allowed him to spend most of his week in the beis medrash, a luxury he would not have had at home, where he would have been the program director for his young children. A number of women described Pesach in a hotel as an opportunity to savor the Chag, rather than feel like slaves shackled to the stove preparing festive meals for their families and guests for eight days. .
Another husband told me how his wife used to present the classical symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the weeks leading up to Pesach, which typically left shalom bayis in short supply as they limped into the Chag. Now the family still cleans for Pesach and does bekikas chametz, before heading for a nearby hotel, but they do so without all the bitterness attached.
To all who wrote to explain why the hotel experience helped their ruchnios experience of the Chag, I can only say, "I was not talking about you." As I already acknowledged, there are plenty of reasons why a family might decide not to stay home for the Chag.
Others wrote that anyone who thinks the greatest problem facing American Jewry is Pesach in hotels is loony. Taken literally, that is correct. What I presume the rabbi I quoted meant is that the external performance of mitzvos, without any inner connection to the mitzvah itself or the One Who commanded it, is the central problem Too often we view adherence to a checklist of mitzvos as the price we pay for living in an Orthodox community that we find comfortable rather than a means of connecting to the Ribbono shel Olam.
Extravagant Pesach vacations are only a glaring illustration of the disease. But the lack of inner feeling for the mitzvah is felt in many other areas – the teaching of tznius primarily as a set of restrictions, the hyper-competitive nature of our educational systems, which sometimes does little to encourage ahavas haTorah, the inability to really talk to Hashem in davening. (But these are big subjects for another day.)
MOST CORRESPONDENTS RESPONDED FAVORABLY to the column, which may only reflect that most of us cannot afford a yearly week with the whole family in a hotel. I was happy to hear from one communal rav that I strengthened his decision – or rather his wife's decision – not to accept an invitation to be a "scholar-in-residence" over Pesach. And if I reminded those who are going away that they will also be missing something: Dayeinu.
Just before the Chag, I asked an older couple I was visiting whether they would be going to one of their children or a hotel for Pesach. The wife looked at me in horror. "I pray that I will always be able to make the Seder in my own home," she replied. "My children remember the month from Purim to Pesach as the happiest of the year. The family worked together, and then we would take breaks and sit around talking." Even today, all twelve children and the almost 90 grandchildren take their turns helping with the Pesach cleaning.
But if truth be told, I was more bothered by some of the words of support than the criticisms. A few people offered the insight that the money spent of Pesach vacations would be more than enough to allow our schools to pay rebbeim and teachers a decent salary and on time.
I agree that families who spend a fortune on Pesach vacations should not then seek tuition deductions. But it is naïve to think that if people cut back on Pesach expenses they would give more tzedakah. The opposite is more likely.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l, was once asked by a certain gvir whether he should make a simple wedding or the kind that would be generally expected from those in his socio-economic class. The man was perfectly sincere in his question, and eager to do whatever Rabbi Hutner advised. Nevertheless, Rabbi Hutner told him to make a gvirish wedding. When his talmidim wondered at this, he explained, "If he is tight with himself, he will be tight with others as well."
Some professed to find something ironic in the fact that the same magazine that published my piece also advertises for Pesach hotels. But there is no irony or contradiction. If anything, it is to the credit of our publisher that he did not hesitate to publish a piece that might have offended some major advertisers. For one thing, I do not speak for Mishpacha. Nor do the advertisements. It is naïve to think that readers view advertisers as if they had the full imprimatur of the Vaad HaRuchani.
A few years back, a respected Torah journal refused to run a second time an advertisement for a treadmill that showed a man learning the daf while jogging, after many readers complained that the image demeaned Torah learning. So there are limits. But, in general, we should not expect (hopefully) profit-making businesses to screen out ads that are not contrary tohalacha.
Nor do I find problematic advertisements for products beyond the means of most readers. Those ads keep down the price of the magazine. Rather than pretending that there are not those whose standard of living is much higher than our own it is incumbent upon us to learn and teach our children that opulence brings few of life's real pleasures.
But most disturbing to me was the suggestion of one reader that "the rabbis" should just place a ban on Pesach hotels. No, no, no – a hundred times no. Once we recognize that there are perfectly valid reasons for some people to go to hotels no ban is possible. The rabbis would soon find themselves not only dealing with Pesach shaylos and selling chametz, but with Vaadim L'Inyanei Hotels.
More important, the bans would be widely ignored. Chassidic rebbes can enunciate and enforce sumptuary laws on their own communities because their authority is unquestioned. But outside those courts lies an Orthodox world of infinite variegation, in which no figure commands universal authority. Our rabbonim are wise enough to know that commands that are widely ignored only serve to lower the esteem of Torah.
Bans are not chinuch, as we have written. Indeed they often make true chinuch more difficult by focusing attention and discussion on the propriety of the ban rather than the underlying issues of avodas Hashem. As always our true, far more difficult task is not to rely on bans but to instill an understanding of Pesach so deep and uplifting that Cancun cannot compare.