Actually, our Pesach cleaning story starts right after Purim. It’s not just about getting rid of all the nosh from our kitchen; the issue is where the nosh goes. Of course, this is the case for everyone with children, but it seems that when you have several children with special needs the “where is the chometz hiding?” cleanup game is even more challenging.
Forget about the fact that Pesach is charging towards us on the calendar. Chometz continues to travel throughout our house. One child takes pretzels upstairs where they are eaten in one of our beds. Another child takes a good piece of cake to the computer to watch Uncle Moishy sing about cleaning for Pesach (the irony is probably not appreciated by this perpetrator). Yet another child tries to find as many crevices in the house as possible in which to hide the chometz (I guess in preparation for putting out the bread on Bedikas Chometz night?) without keeping inventory of where it’s being put.
Of course, these and many more permutations of such chometz distribution make a house with special needs children quite a chore to clean. So, our first step is to try to get them involved in the cleaning process. It starts with a “simple” request: “Please help me clean up the play area by picking up the toys which are on the floor.” Most of our children are willing to comply; that is not the issue. However, thanks to ADD, ADHD, ASD, and many other alphabet acronyms and labels, what starts as cleaning usually becomes playing with toys which had been forgotten about, which is why they were on the floor in the first place. To be honest, that is a best case scenario. Things can get ugly as the playing turns into mess-making.
It is certainly reminiscent of the series of books, If You Give a Moose a Muffin. Let’s see…If you ask your child with special needs to clean, he will probably want to play. Playing with his Super Hero figurine will remind him of the police outfit he wore on Purim. He will take out all of his clothing from the closet and drawers to find that outfit so that he can put it on. Wearing the outfit will remind him of all the nosh he enjoyed on Purim while wearing his costume. He will run to the kitchen to eat the nosh, which will remind him of the Uncle Moishy song about remembering to say brachos before eating. He will grab all the nosh he can carry to the computer to watch the video. While watching the video, he will get to the song about helping your parents. This will remind him to come back to the living room (leaving a trail of fresh crumbs) to help “clean” for Pesach. And if he comes to help clean for Pesach, chances are he will find a toy with which he will want to play.
Ever notice how you don’t see much of the parents in the original If You Give a Moose a Muffin books?
After enduring this charming cycle for almost 4 weeks, we finally arrive at erev Pesach night. One way or the other, the food has been cleaned up from the corners of the house (we hope), and as we get ready to start our Bedikas Chometz the “who” questions arise: who holds the candle, who carries the bag, who sweeps the bread into the bag, who schleps the vacuum cleaner, who falls asleep when we get to their bedroom, who wanders into the living room to start taking out toys to play with yet again, who is better off not participating so the bread is not taken out of the bag and neither eaten nor hidden somewhere new in the house.
When this 2-3 hour event finally comes to a close, the house is much quieter (many have fallen asleep), much cleaner of chometz, but not necessarily tidy and orderly, and the parents are exhausted. Ironically, this is not a good way of entering into the first night of Pesach when we need all of our energy to help make the Seder memorable. Put that together with the usual hectic erev Pesach morning—only eat the chometz at the table in the entrance way, only on top of the newspaper, don’t rip the newspaper, don’t dump the bag with the chometz from last night inside, don’t hurt your sibling with the lulav which is going to be burned, now is not the time to sing Uncle Moishy’s “Did You Ever Shake a Lulav?”, the fire at Biur Chametz is not going to hurt you, we only throw the chometz into the fire, don’t worry, the fireman will make sure it’s safe, I know your Morah said never to go close to fire, “DON’T GO THAT CLOSE TO THE FIRE!”, we have to get home to help Ima, one more marshmallow and that’s it, if we eat all the lady fingers now we won’t have any for Yom Tov, I’m trying to rest so we can have a nice Seder, yes-that’s right—we won’t be able to use the computer on Yom Tov, yes—Yom Tov is two days (Boruch Hashem not three)”—and it’s a NAIS that our eyes are even open by the time we get home from shul on Pesach night.
And this is when the fun begins. Everyone is “pumped” for that first cup of grape juice (“I can drink the whole cup?!”), the haggadahs they have spent so much time on in school are near their seats, and the pillows are schlepped from everywhere in the house (even those we don’t need). We sing Uncle Moishy’s Seder song, we wash without a bracha (completely not a problem!), we eat celery (I don’t like celery—can I have something else?, I love celery—can I have all the extra pieces?, and clever silence from the child who doesn’t communicate verbally and just takes the celery from his sister who is not paying attention for half a second and takes her eye off her piece). We hide the Afikoman (where is Zaidy hiding it? can I help Saba this year? our Morah says that we get presents, so when are we going to the store?), and we ask the Ma Nishtana (I don’t want to, I don’t remember, I want to say it so the whole block can hear).
Now here is the hardest part. Some children want to say everything they have ever learned about the Haggadah while the others are falling asleep or trying to sneak a piece of matzah thinking that no one else is looking. Keeping everyone engaged and focused is not an easy task (see earlier for cleaning the living room challenge), but I’m telling you, it can be done. How? Because one of the miracles of Pesach is that Hashem gives parents the strength and energy to make the Seder come alive (spontaneously getting up and dancing with your child during Dayainu, giving challenge questions like “how many words start with an aleph in the next four lines,” asking silly questions or giving silly answers).
Being the parent of children with special needs requires Siyatah Dishmaya on a daily basis. Being the parent of children with special needs takes Siyata Dishmaya to a whole new level. As we get to Hallel/Nirtzah and practically everyone is fading, I recall the line in Dayainu that is not said but that I whisper to myself every year: “If my child with special needs will grow up to be a Yarai Shamayim and love Hashem and the Torah but will still have difficulty learning, DAYAINU.”
Rabbi Yehuda Minchenberg is a Fifth Grade Rebbe at Yeshivat Noam. He and his wife are the proud but exhausted parents of six beautiful children, three of whom attend SINAI Schools.