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.