I remember a seder. My first Passover. Watching the full moon out the car window as we drove from Ann Arbor to her home in Flint. Sitting at her family’s dining table trying to decipher the siddur, confused by the fresh rituals, excited to hold her hand under the table. Mostly that. Secret hand holding and the full moon.
And since then how many seders? Twenty. Maybe more. A Pesach when I needed a friend to remind me not to buy a ham sandwich for lunch. A seder happy and alone in our own English flat. A seder again in Flint with our infant son and his grandmother singing dayenu! and and laughing until they cried. And every snapshot, every seder, with her at my side, guiding me, reminding me that the Smart Son looks just like her brother.
Somewhere in that kaleidoscope, Pesach lodged in my ritual rhythm as my own holiday of redemption. Each year I ask “what am I enslaved to this time?” “What am I finally free from?” What’s Egypt, Mitzryim, the tight spot; and what’s loosened up?
And this week, with the New Moon of Nisan almost here, it struck me: this Pesach will be singular. I hadn’t really considered it, how bereavement is the narrowest of narrow places. How the world contracts and contracts, finally focused to one room, one bed, one person, one breath. One moment of ultimate, narrow Mitzryim.
And I have become a kind of willing slave. To love and death. I have labored my entire life to reach the moment, and whatever I must do in the moment for that one person, I will do. Pure slavery.
And afterwards, I am crossing the Sea of Reeds. Eventually, Pharo let me go. I am free, provided I can walk through the sea, water up in my nose, a few waves breaking over my head. Just walk and get wet, one foot in front of the other waiting for dry land to arrive. Don’t lie down and drown.
Beyond is the shore, and perhaps the song. Beyond is longing for fat cucumbers, melons and leeks of slavery. Beyond are parched days. Confusion and doubt and rebellion, and maybe revelation. Will I build a calf? Will I cry for quail? The narrow straits begin to open out, but somewhere the certainty of slavery has lodged itself in me, and I want it back.
Leave the metaphor. After the death comes the grief, and after that more grief, but also healing. The world expands around that person and that bed and that room. I take a few steps, and some days it feels OK. Other days I miss my dead and demand to go back. To go down to Egypt.
Is it redemption? One life for another? Surely not. But still that could be logic. Survivor’s logic. Survivor’s redemption. She died, so I live. I see that it could be the root of guilt. Forget guilt. Accept the random redemption and the warm obligation of life. She died, so I must truly live. The dead don’t sing hallel, we sing hallel.
Is this Passover?
I feel like there are no narrower passages than that room. That this year’s crossing will have been the worst. That this freedom will forever bear the marks of that slavery. Yet there will be life, and there will be revelation, and a promised land. (And wandering, for sure.)
The folkways give us a rich framework for death - aninut, shiva, shloshim, yartziet, yizkor -- a day, a week, a month, a year, forever -- yet I think I have not before seen how Passover fits into the Jewish Manual for Mourners. And now it seems plain and apt.
I remember a seder. Quickly cooked, reliable favorites: garlicky lamb, roast potatoes, spiced carrots with wild mushrooms. Plus the ritual foods. (A plastic toy goat filled in for the zaroa.) We set a table by her couch, in her sanctuary. Not quite the final, narrowest place, but close. The three of us told the story, shared the old jokes, and drank wine. As far as “enjoy the meal,” then a phone rang. When the doctor calls late on Friday night, it is not good news. We ended up in the ER. We didn’t know it then, but that was the last Pesach in Egypt, interrupted before hallel.
Better not to end there.
I remember a seder. Laughter when the cat jumped on the table and made off a chunk of lamb in one swift leap. When we built plagues out of lego. When we threw frogs and hail. When Mitzryim was big enough for two people to squeeze through.
I remember a seder.