My son was 3-years-old, Passover was just around the corner, and I was exhausted.
As I walked around the house tidying for Passover, my son walked in my wake and left new trails of crumbs and toys and sticky finger prints on the freshly-cleaned surfaces. When I gave up on cleaning as a hopeless task, and tried to read about the holiday instead, he jumped onto my lap and asked for stories. And when I finally accepted that reading simply wasn’t in the books that year, and found a moment to close my eyes and simply think about the Exodus instead, suspicious crunching noises forced me to sprint into the kitchen… where I discovered all of my day’s work, undone.
“I can’t take it anymore,” I told my husband that night, after we cleared the mess and cleaned the kitchen all over again. “Passover used to my favorite holiday. Now I just want it to be over and done with.”
My dissatisfaction went far beyond Passover itself, of course: The holiday of freedom simply forced me to face my own confinement.
Passover wasn’t my favorite holiday because of the Matzahs or the four cups of wine. Nor were the songs the traditional songs, much as I enjoyed them, the secret to my happiness.
I loved Passover because it resonated with how I experienced life all year round.
I went through my youth feeling like I was a spirit, or a mind, tagging a body along. Sure, limbs and organs were useful to have around. But they weren’t particularly interesting. They couldn’t compete with ideas or stories, for example. It was unfortunate, I used to think back then, that my uninteresting clump of flesh kept slowing me down with its needs. And it was even more unfortunate that well-meaning people kept reinforcing that process, urging me to deal with practicalities and come back down to earth.
Passover, or more specifically the Seder, offered me a reprieve from all these would-be anchors. For one glorious night, philosophizing was the order of the day, and sentences like “enough with the abstractions” or “come on, let’s get back to tachlis” disappeared. For one night, we were actually instructed to analyze and ponder and discuss, and I could soar high into the skies of abstraction, finally, and blissfully, unleashed.
But then came parenthood, which buried the person I used to be – the person who wanted to fly – under an avalanche of chores and needs. Before motherhood, I used to thrive in intellectual conversations. But with a toddler waddling his way from one mischief to another, I could barely engage in small-talk before running to stop each new disaster. I used to take time to reflect on my experiences. But with a child to raise and a new baby in the womb, I was lucky if I had the time to take a nap.
I am shackled, I thought that night, after cleaning the kitchen twice in one day. I am shackled to the flesh by my parenthood, and my life will never be the same.
On the next day, as I tried again to clean and ponder, my son hugged me from behind. “Ima,” he said, “Why are you sad? Are you feeling like the Jews in Egypt?”
“Kind of, actually,” I answered. “Do you ever feel like you can’t do what you want to do?”
“Sure,” he said at once. “Whenever you and daddy tell me ‘No!’””
“So are we your Pharaoh?”
He actually took a moment to think about my question. But I didn’t have time to feel indignant, not when my own words gave me pause.
Who is my Pharaoh, I asked myself. What is it that’s holding me back?
And as I sat there surrounded by rugs and cleaning supplies and one sweet child, I realized that “parenthood” was an inadequate response.
What truly confined me wasn’t motherhood, because motherhood was merely one more expression of my passion to experience life to the fullest. The same passion that made me seek intellectual challenges as a young adult, later led me to delve into marriage and motherhood. But even had it led me into other paths, the mere fact that I was always bound to pursue more than one type of experience meant that I would have run into inner conflicts down the line.
The Seder urges parents to remember that different children require different educational approaches. But even the same child, as I know now, might require different approaches at different times. The four sons may represent different people, but they may also stand for different states of minds, or different moods.
Is it truly so surprising that we remain complicated as we grow up? Is it truly so surprising that as my passion for life found new and divergent venues, my time started to feel divided, constrained?
If there are at least four sons within each child, I thought as I conversed with my son about Pharaoh, there must also be at least four people within every adult. And in this particular stage in my life, two of them are vying for my attention. The intellectual me wants to soar high, unfettered by needs and responsibilities and chores. But at the same time, the mothering me wants to focus on her children, and nourish them as they grow.
The Haggadah encourages us to treat each child according to their needs. Once I resolved to treat my needs with the same attentiveness, I realized that Passover offered me the perfect way to address both of my competing states of mind. Discussing the Exodus story with my son may have been less intellectually rigorous than debating with another adult, but it was still a way to experience parenting while engaging in the life of the mind. And besides, I thought, as the mess and chores stopped bothering me altogether, parenting confers religious value to my philosophizing. The central commandment of Passover, after all, is to pass the story down to our daughters and sons. I was doing what I was supposed to do, for now.