I was standing on my front step, shaking out the hallway rug as part of my Passover cleaning, when the thought suddenly appeared in my mind, in large bold letters that erased everything else I had been thinking about.
“I am so lucky to have my own home to clean.”
The intensity of my gratitude in that moment surprised me. I hadn’t been thinking about the many blessings of my life, as I try to do on a regular basis. Quite the opposite: I was silently bemoaning the challenges of the holiday, as I have done every year since we started observing Passover more seriously. The cleaning is laborious, the dietary restrictions increasingly challenging as my daughter’s range of acceptable foods becomes smaller and smaller. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure why I kept with it year after year–probably because it is important to my husband, and because I want our daughters to grow up in a home that is Jewish in more than name and mezuzah in the doorway.
So there I was, standing in the cold spring sunshine, when the thought hit me. “I am so lucky.” Almost immediately, a montage of images ran through my mind, scenes that took place long before I was born: my great-grandmother sitting in a jail cell after cursing Mussolini’s name in a bread line in Northern Italy. My husband’s great-grandfather being brutally beaten by Nazi soldiers in pre-war Germany. Nameless, faceless Jews stumbling, hunched and weak, through the barracks of Dachau, a concentration camp my family and I toured a few years ago. I thought of them as I moved through my small home, sweeping and dusting. It’s not that I was thinking about how minor my struggles are compared to theirs (although they most certainly are), rather I was appreciating how fortunate I am to be able to make the choice to introduce quite manageable challenges into my life in honor of my religious beliefs, my faith, my community, and my ancestors. So many generations of Jews have not been so lucky.
The next day, my daughters and I were sitting on the couch, reading a Passover story. They prefer the part about Baby Moses (it’s always about the babies for them), but they are more than willing to sit through the rest of the story (with some heavy editing of the plagues by yours truly). We read the book, and then we read it again. That evening, as we were sitting at the dinner table, my 4-year-old asked if Pharaoh was still alive.
“No, sweetie. He died a long, long time ago.”
“Are we slaves, Mommy?”
“No, we’re not. We can decide when we want to work, and when we want to rest, and we can go to synagogue and celebrate Jewish holidays.”
My daughter went silent for a minute before responding. “We’re really lucky we’re not slaves. They have to work so hard.”
Yes. I thought. We are so incredibly lucky.
A few days later, my Facebook feed was filled with squares of red, digital images in support of equality. This week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in two separate cases regarding same-sex marriage. Although the justices likely won’t render their decision until June, we are living in a powerful moment. Yet another class of historically oppressed individuals is standing on the precipice of true freedom, including the freedom to enjoy the benefits of civil marriage. Regardless of what the court decides (and I certainly hope they choose to recognize the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry), the GLBTQ community has the support of an unprecedented number of Americans. The virtual red sea that greeted me each time I turned on my computer may not influence the Supreme Court, but I hope it will remind my gay and lesbian friends that they are not alone.
We all live in our own personal mitzrayim; we all spend our days pushing against the constraints of our narrow straights. If we are lucky, we have some amount of control over, or at least, responsibility for, that which limits us. If we are lucky, we can choose to embrace the inconvenience of a few days without bread and pasta. Yet so many, for so long, haven’t had the freedom to work, to worship, and to love as they wish. The journey to freedom was a long one for the Israelites, through slavery and plagues, a terrifying escape, and nearly two generations spent wandering the desert. It has been that long, and longer, for the gay community in the United States and the rest of the world.
My 4-year-old daughter is wise enough to recognize how fortunate we are to live in this time, in this place. She understands that the reason she’s not eating her beloved macaroni and cheese this week is because we’re remembering the Israelite slaves who were fleeing from Pharaoh. What she doesn’t quite get, what it has taken me years to finally understand, is that the true gift of Passover is the compassion and gratitude that arises when we make difficult choices in the name of our values and beliefs.
As we head into Shabbat, a day of peace, a window into the possibility of a perfect world, may we all enjoy the freedom of chosen challenges. As I struggle to find foods that my daughter will eat, I will be thinking about the Israelites, I will be remembering my great-grandmother, and I will be grateful to be alive in an era when we–the American community, the Jewish community, and the gay community and their allies–are closer to freedom than ever before.
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