I already knew it would be special because it would be my first official seder–the one where I could talk about what HaShem did for me in Egypt… the one where I would need no qualifiers when talking about myself because a Jew-by-choice is a Jew. (At least according to rabbinic tradition!) I wasn’t, however, prepared for how emotional it was going to be.
The first moment where emotions ran high was the blessing for children at the beginning of the seder. Even though this was my sixth seder (and fourth year celebrating), I had never actually seen the blessings perfomed–the others had been at Hillel or temple where the parents weren’t present and the family I spent my first seder with was not very traditional, so they’d skipped it. But the G’s, having multiple rabbis in the family with three of them in attendance, did not skip it. My JDad automatically rose, putting his hands on my head. His partner R hesitated, and then they both asked if it was okay for him to bless me too. I nodded, choking on my words, and two pairs of hands cradled my head gently and asked for me to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; for God to bless me and guard me; for God to show me favor and be gracious to me; for God to show me kindness and grant me peace. Absolute peace descended, and I remembered the meaning of my first Hebrew name: “God has willed it.” And so I felt that God had willed it, all of it, so that we were all there at that moment.
Then, it was time for the retelling. A rabbi in attendance asked for us to list modern enslavements, and my JDad and I immediately clasped hands. The silence was loud between us, with a heavy word slicing through it: depression. My mind’s current master, bending me to its will and exacting a very heavy price (of many spoons) for every single step I take. It overworks me, weakens me, humiliates me; it stacks up all the odds against me. With depression as my Pharaoh and daily life as my Egypt, the tale of hope and freedom by Divine Grace hit a lot closer to home.
With that weighing in my heart, it was time for the retelling. We filled in the blanks together, pouring whatever we remembered on the table so we could reassemble it. I retold my favorite part, that of Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing Moses. As a trivia question, the host rabbi asked if I remembered the princess’s name. “Batya?” I replied hesitantly, and the company was so impressed that I was immediately being claimed as trivia teammate. I basked in the approval for a long moment, even as the retelling went on… and then remembered why I know her name. Bat-ya(h)… daughter of God, so named by the rabbis for doing God’s will and seeing past Moses’s differences, embracing him in love instead.
I always think of her as she was illustrated in those Biblical storybooks printed by Jehova’s Witnesses, one of which I owned in my youth. She stands slim and delicate, dressed in white and gold, with her hair in long, decorated braids and her eyes rimmed with kohl. Youth is in her face, as is beauty–and she carries motherhood in her shoulders as she looks down at baby Moses in his basket. She is about to defy her father, her ruler, to do the right thing and save this child she knows isn’t supposed to live. She is, in short, everything I long to be. My Biblical model, if you will. And, as painful as it was, it was also a reminder of everything I’m not.
The night took a bittersweet turn as we shared our seder stories waiting for dinner to begin. When my JDad forwarded the email from the hosts asking for a seder story to share, I immediately knew what mine would be: my first seder at E’s house in 2010, before I screwed everything up and lost her. Even though the seder itself is fuzzy, there are moments that stand out vividly in my mind. My first sip of syrupy Manischewitz wine. Her mother smiling at me encouragingly from the other side of the table. Her dad giving me a chance to read, and helping me out to make sure I knew what was going on. Everyone in attendance making pauses to explain to me so I could keep up. I felt so welcome and so warm, and I was shocked at how familiar and comforting and right all of those new things felt. I didn’t know it then, but it was her friendship and especially that night that opened the doors of Judaism for me–and made me want to walk through.
It is fitting, then, that the one night that started everything would end up giving so much back to me. Sometimes all that is needed in an opportunity for reflection; a chance for all of these feelings to coalesce in a way that allows one to verbalize them. But I can’t help but think that these moments might be thanks to my own personal Elijah, signaling that the time has come to stop waiting and start going out into the world.