Historically, I haven’t had the best relationship with Passover: the cleaning, the food restrictions, the cleaning, the anticipation for weeks, the shopping, the cleaning. Did I mention the cleaning? It would all get to me, annoy me, and keep me from focusing on the good parts of the holiday, on the themes that I should have been focusing. The irony that I felt enslaved to a holiday that is all about freedom was not lost on me.
I got better, and over the last few years I learned to embrace the process as part of the preparation to achieve the right frame of mind for the holiday. Then after I got divorced, it all changed, or rather, I changed.
We learn from the Talmud that there are 50 levels of purity/impurity, and when the Israelites were in Egypt, the reason they had to get out in a hurry, like grab-your-unleavened-bread-and-go kind of hurry, was that they had reached the 49th level of impurity. Had they waited one more moment to leave Egypt, had they tarried one more second, they would have slipped to the 50th level, and been lost forever. As a lesson, I always grasped the significance, but it remained academic, theoretical: I could understand the idea of someone being just on the border of the abyss and being saved in the nick of time, but on an abstract level.
That all changed after my divorce. I was angry with God, and decided to walk away from Judaism for good. I stopped everything: kosher, Shabbat observance, prayers, rituals, studying. Everything. I put all my stuff in the back of the closet, and went on to live a non-Jewish life. I didn’t make any blessings during the day, I ate non-kosher food–heck, I ate pork again after 10 years–, I did whatever I wanted on Saturdays, and planned to completely ignore every Jewish holiday. That all lasted maybe two weeks before I made a huge realization: I was absolutely miserable, and lost. I remember one afternoon when I went out for a walk to try to cheer myself up, and all I could do was think of how empty I felt, and I ended up crying, weeping like a child. At that moment, I finally understood what being in the 49th level of impurity meant, what it felt like. Right then and there I made a decision to do teshuva (literally, to return) and start again on the road to God. At that moment, I experienced my own personal exodus that kept me from slipping into the 50th level.
Every Passover since then I am reminded of that day, and I rejoice that I get the chance to keep improving myself. I am not as observant as I was once, and I’m certainly not Orthodox anymore. These days I focus less on labels and categories, and more on connection and meaning, and during Passover, when I recall that moment, I get to personally experience the idea of getting out of Egypt, of freedom from enslavement, of redemption. Don’t get me wrong, each year is still a struggle. Although I may not be as observant as I once was, I still take Passover seriously, and although I don’t keep kosher throughout the year, I do keep kosher for Passover. Each of the last three Passovers have been different, which means adapting to my situation at the time and doing the best possible effort. It is in making that effort that I find my connection, my meaning. In having to force myself to think how to keep Passover to the best of my ability given where I am in life each spring, I get to actively think about the holiday, about its meaning, about its laws and customs, and how they mesh into my life. Each year has been different, but each year I somehow find the connection I seek. I mean, last year it took me building a LEGO Passover table and seder for everything to click!
This year, in the midst of preparing to move back to Florida, of packing two different apartments, of working full-time, of finishing my degree online, of taking care of our 3-month-old daughter, Passover snuck up on me. But somehow, with just a day to spare, I managed to gather my supplies, and get ready for the holiday. Did I feel that connection yet? No, but at least I had my matzah, and the rest of my supplies. I had arranged to attend the Passover seder at the synagogue I go to, and since I was on babysitting duty, I would be bringing my daughter along for the event. You know when it all clicked for me this year? As I was sitting at synagogue, trying to listen to the rabbi above the hustle and bustle of 50+ people, and we reached in the haggadah the part about the Four Children, and we read:
As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: “You shall tell your child on that day, `It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt.'”
I read that quickly, then it dawned on me: this wasn’t just another line in the haggadah anymore; this time I had my daughter with me, this time I could really tell my child, on that day, that “It is because of this (meaning the whole story of Passover) that God did for me when I left Egypt.” I left Egypt. Me. For the first time I got to say that to my own child, and in telling my child, it all clicked, and I was once again experiencing the exodus, freedom, redemption. It was also a reminder that without having been to the bottom, and getting back up, I would not be sitting at a seder with my daughter, of that I am sure.
I don’t know what my situation will be next year, but I know without a doubt that I will find that connection, that I will work to find that connection, and once again go out of Egypt.