Throwback: Passover 2020

I recently went back through some archives, and I found a piece that I had written at the very beginning of our county’s Coronavirus shutdown. Oh wow, the memories. Re-reading now the words that I chose then feels somewhat otherworldly, as though I can’t quite believe it was I who described the curious new world of grocery shopping in a pandemic. Anyways, here is what I wrote:

Resentment and Gratitude, Together

Today is day ten of our shelter-in-place orders here in California, so we’re all getting adjusted to the situation, as best as one can adjust to uncertainty.  As best as I can remember, things went from relatively-normal to completely-new in one hour increments.  On a Thursday afternoon, our school board met to affirm that the schools would remain open in accordance with current county guidance, but sixteen hours later, by Friday at 11:30, the closure was announced for end-of-day.  Through the weekend, various closures and changes were announced one-by-one.  Our library was open only to pick up requested books on Sunday, but by Monday our county announced a shelter-in-place order and it closed completely.  In four days, the Coronavirus went from a theoretical threat to a life-altering move for virtually everyone I know.

Even before many lives were lost, many livelihoods were destroyed. I feel so worried for my community; for the people I know who will struggle with their health, or for their loved ones who will die, and for the doctors and nurses who are working tirelessly. I sometimes hope so desperately for their well-being that it feels like my heart physically aches.  I worry for the small business owners I know, wondering how they can weather this crushing blow to their narrow margins. And like all of us, I wonder what’s going to happen— how long can we do this?  How will we be okay, even though I know that we will be somehow.

When I stopped worrying about the outside world,  I felt a crushing weight of resentment for the unreasonable burdens that were starting to fall on me.  Without so much of an offhand comment, let alone a discussion, it was clear to both my husband and to me the way that the new distribution of labor was going to fall.  And the major labor that was about to fall in our laps was going to be negotiating a small space among our family, entertaining and educating our four children, and meeting the endless demands of food preparation and cleaning that come when so many people are in the same space.  On one view, I was well poised to do this; by intention I homeschooled my children for nearly a decade.  But this was little consolation; I no longer do this precisely because I made the deliberate decision not to.  For nearly a year, I had been reconstructing our lives in a way that involved going to school as its central organizing feature of our children’s lives.  Now, as the announcement came, it felt like the life I had constructed was being taken from me.  All of the work that I had put in to making my life feel like my own again— now I was being sent back to a place I had just escaped.

My husband set up a home office in our bedroom, and to be clear— it’s no picnic.  At one point much earlier in our marriage, he worked from home.  After a short while, he realized that the physical isolation was untenable for him, and he made the deliberate choice to do something different.  Still, his days are programmed in much the same way that they always were, which is what I meant when I screamed at him, “your days are changing by a factor of two. Very nice, mazal tov, it sucks for you.  But my days are changing by a factor of ten!”  Having decided that I am a person who just needs a couple of hours to myself every day, now I am unable to have that need met in a way that feels threatening to my very well-being.  “Ema, ema, ema!” the calls come all day long.  “Help me with this, do you know where the extra glue is, how do you turn on the oven again?”  I prize independence in my kids above all, and that’s what I foster with all of my shreds of parenting resource.  Still, if they muster that 75% of the time, they’re doing great, but with four kids, I’m still on the hook 100% of the time.  I was making great progress on a writing project— my first big one— and it was bringing me great joy.  Now I can barely find a few minutes to think.  And I’m resentful, and I should be.

And then, not a week later, I’m in the grocery store.  The crowds of preparing for the apocalypse have died down.  Now there’s just an eerie quiet as I move through, and find that I can locate most of the things that my family likes to eat.  As I look around at the other shoppers, all appropriately distanced from each other, and at my full cart, I want to burst into tears in gratitude and appreciation.  We are well.  We are safe, and we have what we need.  We don’t know what the future will bring, but this moment is so full of things that I can’t take for granted one second longer.  We’re not eating serving plain rice to our picky eaters (although I can imagine a world in which I would be grateful even for that).  Instead, my cart is filled with lettuce and eggs and milk and green beans, and I think of all the people who needed to get to work to make that happen for us, ending with the cashier I now exchange pleasantries with.  “Did you find everything you were looking for?” he casually asks.  “Yes!’ I say, not even finding it worth mentioning my missing items, “And I couldn’t be more grateful.  My family will be well today.”

And there’s one way in which the gratitude can erase all of that resentment.  Who has time to begrudge the inconvenience of parenting children I love when the sun in shining and the world still spins, and the people most dear to me are all making crafts and chatting with their friends online and hosting virtual parties?  But I don’t think it’s right to put down my resentment, because there are moments when they have been fighting for the iPad and the right to play music in the living room, and threatening to kill each other all day, and I remember that my life, privileged though it is, has been ripped to shreds by circumstances outside of my control.  Why should gratitude erase my resentment, any more than my resentment should erase my gratitude?  My challenge is to feel both fully grateful and fully resentful.

All of which makes me think this year about the upcoming holiday of Passover.  Hanging on to both gratitude and resentment at the same time is tough, but it also feels like the only reasonable thing to do.  And somehow, as I think about what it feels like, I flash to the Israelites and their experience of leaving Egypt.  Because we still, thousands of years later, enthusiastically celebrate their freedom from the horrible slavery of Pharoah, it’s always a little bit shocking to read about their complaints to Moses in the desert.  They come to him and don’t say in appreciation, “boy, it’s sure great not to have to make bricks in the hot sun all day.”  They come to him and say, “Where’s the water?  For THIS, Moses?  You led us out of Egypt just to die in the desert?”

Before this year, I’ve always read that as a concession to human nature.  We humans can be the most wretched ingrates, even when we have everything to be grateful for.  Here Moses was doing his best, quite in the middle of sorting out this water-and-food thing, and they practically accuse him of trying to kill them all.  

Now I read it differently.  They too had everything to be resentful for, their lives turned upside down overnight.  They weren’t plucked out of disaster and plopped into luxury.  They were led from a known struggle into the abyss of uncertainty, and we all have learned these past few weeks how disconcerting that can be when you’re safe, and they most certainly weren’t. They left homes filled with bread and water and headed straight into the desert.  Were they grateful?  I don’t know; their words are resentment only.  

Maybe as penance for this lack of gratitude, we go overboard at our Seder singing “Dayenu.”  The words go on to recount each and every miracle we experienced by God, and we say after each one, “even if this had been the only thing done for us, it would have been enough.”  If you pay attention to the words, it’s really puzzling.  If God had led us out of Egypt, but hadn’t parted the sea for us— with Pharoah’s army approaching from behind, wouldn’t we have been killed or led back to Egypt?  Why would that have been enough?  Each and every verse expresses sheer gratitude for things that reasonably defy gratitude, at least in this telling. It’s a joyful song, and a lovely practice, but it feels off balance.  It suggests gratitude only.

The challenge is to find the space of fulling embracing our Israelite complaint, recognizing that resentment is not the rejection of gratitude, but rather the full feeling that accompanies fear, futility and hopelessness.  It’s called for in desperate times.  

But at the same time, it feels wonderful to delight in every blessing that we can find; a day where we wake up well, the blessedness of rain or the pleasures of sunshine, clean running water, healthy food, and the fact that the internet spread through the world before this all came crashing down on us.  

We have within our Passover practice both the tools and language to fully express both the resentment and the gratitude of the way we left Egypt, and of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

And all of this reminds me of Passover in one other way.  On Passover, we celebrate our freedom and each generation, we are called anew to think of what that means to us.  As an American Jew, I always feel that at a bare minimum, I am grateful for the religious freedom to say out loud that I am Jewish, and to have the privilege to observe my faith in whatever way the moment speaks to me.  I know enough Jewish history to recognize the rarity of this moment of freedom from both civic and religious authorities.  But I’ve also been taught that amidst the feeling of religious freedom, there are plenty of ways that we enslave ourselves.  From a new-agey Haggadah (I believe it might have even been called the “New Age Haggadah”), I learned that Passover can be a time to reflect on the ways in which we are our own worst enemies, but to set ourselves free— from unhealthy relationships, habits, or identities.

I don’t know that I mean to carve up this idea of freedom into a practice that identifies external freedoms on the one hand, and internal oppressions on the other.  Rather, I mean to wonder if at this moment, we can find some space in which to think of ourselves as fully free, and fully enslaved at the same moment.  In this age of covid-19, we all live in our homes without surveillance or fear.  We are free from coercion and manipulation, free to be who we are meant to be.  And yet we are holed up because there’s a dangerous pathogen weaving its way through our world, seeking to hijack our bodies as carriers in its destructive path. We are not free— to hug each other, to be together, to cook for and nurture each other.

And yet we are free— to be safe, to call each other to reach out, to support our innovators and healers as they pave the way for us to re-emerge into the life we once knew.  Fully free.  Fully enslaved.

Deeply grateful.  Rightfully resentful.

Happy Pesach.

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