More than enough

At that moment, as my Passover tablemates and I grinned wildly at one another, it dawned on me. “More than enough” is a theme that runs throughout Judaism; even Hanukkah has it: the lamp oil was only supposed to last a single night but it lasted for eight. Hence, the menorah’s eight lights. The goal is to help us understand not only that we have enough, but that we are enough.

Because the forces that rob us of freedom are just as likely to come from within, from our own thoughts and beliefs that prevent us from living fully. Many of us are imprisoned by the feelings of fear and anger we haul around as a birthright, the sensation of somehow falling short, which can provoke us to act in a myriad of destructive ways—aggressive actions, compulsive thinking, addictive behavior—that temporarily alleviate the suffering by blotting out our demeaning dialogue until they lose that power and become a private punishment, a prison built for us by us. In this sense, the most radical religious undertaking is to work past these difficult and universal feelings to free ourselves from the confines imposed by our human perspective. Overcoming them does not come easily or naturally, which is why we call on the assistance of a supernatural strength, a higher power, God.

Those of us who’ve grown up without any religion may not know this: with faith and assistance and a bit of struggle, we can make peace with and learn to honor not just ourselves but whatever force brought us here and will eventually snatch us away with the hope that we will not just survive, but thrive. Religion might not be the only way, but it has been used for centuries by people whose inner struggles are no different from ours.

After dinner, only the rabbis and their families remained; they had been serving the guests and were just now getting a chance to eat. I didn’t want to leave, so I asked Rachel if I could help clean. She showed me how to scoop up the plastic table coverings—plates, cups, cutlery, everything—into one big trash ball. I cleared the tables and then picked up items that had fallen on the floor—napkins, forks, chunks of matzah. Underneath a table, I found a coloring book page of the ten plagues. Some kid had drawn little germs of pestilence with bright pink and purple.

The mother approached to thank me for helping. I reached for her hands and held them briefly between mine. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

After she left me, I paused to appreciate the room: the rabbis and their families chatting and eating. This was their normal life and I was in the middle of it. I had overcome all that divides us.

I was congratulating myself when Rachel approached and asked if I would mind helping with something in the kitchen.

I followed her to the back where the burners on two industrial stoves were going. It was at least 100 degrees in there. “Would you mind turning them off?” she asked. I paused, considering the situation. I had read about observant Jews employing a non-Jew to stoke their fires and do the activities forbidden on Sabbath, but I had thought the practice was comical and old timey. Hadn’t timers and slow cookers taken their place?

Sweat was beading on my brow. “Are you asking me to be your Sabbath Gentile?”

She laughed and nodded.

I tried to imagine a rabbi roaming the block explaining his need to passersby. It was almost midnight. Would he slip a $20 to a homeless person to do the task?

“It’s nice to have someone who understands,” she said.

Not exactly the honorary status I had imagined but she was right, I did understand—and maybe that was more than enough.

Advertisements

Dayenu

From their stations at the edges of the room, the rabbis led us through the steps. First, the recollections of enslavement: we scooped a spoonful of the apple mixture on to our plates to remind us of the adobe mortar we molded into bricks, along with a dollop of horseradish for the bitter experience of forced labor.

Then we were freed by the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, after a series of plagues befell his land. Calamities including swarms of lice, flies, and locusts weakened his resolve. Water turned to blood and the sun disappeared and his people developed incurable boils. One of the rabbis instructed us to spill a drop of wine onto our plates as he listed each plague. These were the tears we shed for the Egyptians because any human suffering is sorrowful even if it is the price of freedom. The last plague, the death of every firstborn human and animal, finally swayed Pharaoh to release the slaves, an event commemorated by the hunk of meat on the Passover platter. The Jews smeared a bit of blood from a sacrificed lamb on their houses so death would know which families to “pass over.” The meat is a token of this gesture as well as a nod to the significance of animal sacrifice at the tabernacle and temple.

I chewed some matzah and eyed the big sheet of it I had pulled from the stack. This was most definitely the nourishment of a fleeing people, the basic minimum to sustain life.

I watched my tablemates construct little sandwiches with apple mush and the horseradish by putting this odd combination of fillings between two shards of matzah bread. I built my own and ate it along with them. I was surprised by the overpowering sweetness, perhaps heightened by the contrast to the bitter horseradish. That’s the thing about Passover: it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom. The memory of slavery offers contrast that heightens the joy and gratitude we feel for the ability to live freely.

As the festivities progressed we consumed the requisite four cups of wine and the atmosphere grew more jubilant. No one was required to fill their cup to the top, merely to take a hearty gulp each time, and a grape juice alternative was provided, but most people opted for wine and some, like my Vietnam vet tablemate, took its consumption very seriously. We had a small cup for wine and a large one for water, but he used his water cup for the wine, filling it to the brim each time. Watching him, I abandoned the notion that he was here for the free meal. He knew the Hebrew prayers by heart and his enthusiasm for every aspect of the evening was contagious.

Each time we drank the wine, everyone in the room tilted to the left like we were performing some synchronized dance movement. Per tradition, we were mimicking an angle of repose: reclining to relish our freedom. The Vietnam vet leaned so far over I thought his wine might spill.

The entire room broke out in a traditional song. It’s an inventory of all the good things that have happened before, during, and after Passover, but it’s the single-word chorus everyone sings with such delight that it’s contagious. The word is “Dayenu” and it translates into something like “more than enough.” It expresses a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction even when times are hard and means scarce. We sang the word “Dayenu” over and over again, clapping and shouting. At one point, three rabbis got up and began to dance. Others joined them and for several minutes the joy bubbled over and the crowd egged them on and grown men danced in a circle like ecstatic school children.