Any chag is a time of simcha for the Jewish people, and Pesach, known as “Zman Cheiruteinu” or the “Time of Our Freedom” has tremendous potential for simcha. Pesach is steeped in strong customs just as much as halacha, and stories about “what Bubbie used to do” infuse the preparations with warmth and memories.
When families get together, conflicting customs and interpretations of Jewish law can cause just that: lots of conflict. If you find your Seder or extended Pesach family time causing more drama than simcha, The Simcha Link has some pre-Pesach preparation suggestions that have nothing to do with kashering a sink or finding the most chametz-like desserts.
Before Yom Tov even starts, you can anticipate potential stress triggers and try to address them. “Whether a person is being hosted, or is the host, it’s important to have a conversation before the chag and remind yourself and your family why we are doing this,” said Shlomit Sanders, a family psychotherapist with a practice in West Orange. “If you are married and have a family, talk to your spouse and your children about what everyone hopes to gain from the time over Pesach. Focus on those aspects of the holiday, and work to create shared values and goals that can be a part of the chag.” Sanders also suggested that family members have a type of hand signal or keyword or phrase to use if they feel overwhelmed and need someone to pull them out of a situation. It can be something comical, or just a regular word between two people; the important thing is that it allows you a chance to take a breather and remove yourself from a tense situation.
Heather Feigin, a clinical social worker with a practice in Passaic, added that as counterintuitive as it may seem, self-care is an important component of pre-Pesach preparation. “Everyone thinks, ‘I have to get ready for Pesach so I’m not going to get any sleep,’ when in reality getting a good night’s sleep is an important part of being proactive and preventative.”
Part of taking preventative steps include addressing the mindset you want to have over Pesach. Feigin suggested asking yourself, “What is my priority?” as you go into Yom Tov. “Is it to have a squeaky-clean space behind my fridge? Or to enter Pesach with a happy family?” In an environment with younger children, this can be especially important because they are highly attuned to our words, and sense undercurrents in an environment. “Be very careful with the words you use to describe the chag or your feelings about family,” said Feigin, “since what you say sets the tone with the rest of your family and the overall atmosphere.”
As part of the preparation, Feigin stressed the importance of being able to delegate. While it seems basic in theory, it is an area where many people struggle. But learning to let go of having things done “my way,” and allowing others to step in, not only gives you a break and time to focus on other parts of the day, but gives the person helping out a chance to feel invested in the chag as well.
In the Moment
Despite everyone’s preventative efforts, flare-ups, arguments, explosions, angry exchanges or whatever each family calls them, can occur. “Self-awareness is so important, especially during these moments,” explained Sanders. “Be in control of your emotions instead of letting emotions control you.” She suggested thinking of your emotions on a scale of zero to 100. The next step is to recognize when they are approaching a 20 or even a 30, and to start calming techniques then, rather than waiting until you escalate to 100.
Sometimes a conversation topic can be a trigger. “People need to recognize or accept their own limitations in being able to handle certain topics,” said Sanders. She said they should quietly excuse themselves and take a quick walk, a bathroom break, or even find a place to take some deep breaths. There are even ways a person can practice respectfully asking for a change in topic. If the children are losing it and are not yet self-aware enough to excuse themselves, parents should help them recognize those signs in themselves and provide them with a level of awareness and coping skills of their own.
At the points in time when tempers are flaring and emotions are spiraling out of control, the language used to express feelings is extremely important. Before engaging in any sort of verbal rhetoric, Feigin suggested another reminder for self-awareness, and urged readers to ask themselves, “Am I too upset to engage right now?” Remember that an important part of the conversation is to acknowledge that whatever upsets others is important to you as well. If necessary, urge the other person to take some time for both parties to calm down and revisit the issue at a later point.
Most of the time, try to see if something is worth the confrontation. Often you will find that many things can be overlooked for the duration of Yom Tov, and the trade-off is a more peaceful time all around. If it is something that must be addressed and absolutely cannot be left alone, Feigin advised being careful about the words you use. “In general, be specific and stick to one point instead of blanket statements,” she reminded. For example, instead of accusingly yelling, “You never help me with anything,” try asking directly, “Can you please help me with the freezer?” Small changes in words can make the impact of what you say stronger without making the other person feel attacked.
“People feel like there’s something wrong with them when they cannot manage to enjoy a few hours or a few days with their family, but they need to know that this is something that happens to many people, and normalizing the dynamic can help them prepare emotionally,” said Sanders.
“As humans, we are trained to recognize the bad, but we need to switch around our thoughts and our wording and notice the good and the potential,” said Feigin.
With these thoughts and tools in mind, let us go into a Yom Tov that is full of simcha, with the mindset that we will enjoy the zechut of spending time hosting or being hosted by those we love.