March 30, 2000
My Date with Humility
The Passover seder is a spectacle made for children. The lamb bone, parsley and egg, the wine spilled on the paper plate, all vividly dramatize the story of the Exodus to freedom in such straightforward ways that even the Simple Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask can glean an important lesson.
But preparing for Passover is something else again, a uniquely adult set-up, with its own stepped-up symbols, challenges and meaning.
Pre-Matzah Syndrome comes in stages. Stage 1 is physical, as I instinctively gorge on pasta and pizza, anticipating the deprivation of leavening from my diet. I say goodbye to all the danishes, bagels and pad thai noodles in a 35-mile radius. Dr. Atkins hates me.
Stage 2 is emotional. It is my reality check, my date with humility. Ripping at a sourdough baguette, I begin to critically reassess my home in preparation for the huge holiday crowd. What a mess! My dining room is, once again, too small for 40; my folding chairs are too creaky and too few; the stain on the tablecloth didn't come out at the cleaners and somehow the heirloom candlesticks are still bent at the base. Martha Stewart hates me.
Not that I care. Seeing my limits makes me feel miserable and mediocre, true, but also happy and human. Yes, I have imperfections as a homemaker, just as my mother predicted. But is that so bad? For all my planning, I cannot accomplish everything on my list, which at this moment is a relief. Instead of last year's grandiose plans to do the seder "right," with a matching calligraphic haggadah for everyone, I have substituted merely prudent dreams and reasonable desires, that by the time the guests arrive, the dining room and all the ritual objects within it will be clean.
This year, for the first time in a decade, I will be away from home for Passover. You'd think that having been spared the heavy lifting of the holiday, I'd be free of the emotional baggage, too.
Not so. Here's Stage 3, arriving weeks early. Stage 3 of Pre-Matzah Syndrome is the inner work of the holiday. Even those who don't lead the seder or cook the brisket have work to do. They are part of the story, charged with liberating themselves from their own private Egypts.
And just as they do for children, the symbols of the epic help us focus on the work to do.
Some years, contemplating Egypt, I have seen myself as a wage slave, yearning for independence. I have identified with Aaron, putting words in others' mouths. I have been Miriam or Zipporah, brave bystanders insuring Moses' growth to maturity.
This year -- my goodness, I can hardly bear it. As the parent of an 18-year-old high school senior, I find that of all the roles in the Passover story, I most closely resemble ... Pharaoh! Being the detested Pharaoh must sometime come to everyone, but why, now, has it come to me?!
Once when my daughter was in grade school, I enjoyed the myth of absolute power. I loved calling her teachers, checking her homework, driving her friends to team sports and invading their privacy.
But being Pharaoh, at least to an 18-year-old, is not all it's cracked up to be. I am in a plot that I have not written, playing a part I cannot stand. Am I so powerful? My only real power these days is to make sure that the car gets tuned up and the insurance paid. I see that even the all-powerful can feel powerless.
It's wretched being Pharaoh, as you watch your supposed vassal get up enough nerve and experience to feel safe out in the wilderness. The tentative give-and-take between parent and child makes us wonder who is the master and who the slave? And unlike events in Egypt, this is a relationship not only of absolute power but also of absolute love. So this is why "God hardens Pharaoh's heart." And why Pharaoh thought he could not "let the people go."
There are no answers to Stage 3 PMS. But there are tools, including what I think of as "the chametz within."
"Chametz," of course, is leaven, those grains and seeds that will rise in the presence of liquid. But of course it is something more. Baking soda, yeast and vinegar are the fermented stuff of self-importance. If I can get control of my need for ravioli and rugelach, maybe I'll learn why the Hebrew root for "chametz" is the same as "ruthlessness." And I'll give up power voluntarily.
In the mean time, I'll contemplate next year, when she has crossed the Sea of Reeds.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, contributed to the anthology "Dancing on the Edge of the World." She'll join other writers, including editor Miriyam Glazer, on Thursday, April 6, at the University of Judaism at 7:30 p.m.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Her book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.