Purim and then Pesach dragged me from drunkenness to strict sobriety, from freedom to boa-like constriction. Wandering through Jerusalem on the eve of Purim, its buildings came alive with music, bodies, reddened with wine, struck dance moves at odds with the pulse of the music. Out of sync but still unified, they danced as though alone with the beat. Bouncing. Who knew people could fly? Eyes shut, jumping to experience a moment’s escape from this world, jumping just high enough to peer over the fence into Infinity’s Garden. Or perhaps it was the shock of hitting hard, solid ground again that sparked the delight? Was it the going up or the coming back down? Or both? Perhaps going up meant that upon coming down we gained the ability to laugh at the apparent finitude that Reality loves fooling us with. Yes, Purim was a journey of the absurd. Control abandoned, those strong walls that customarily separate Id, Ego and Superego crumble, and internal worlds stream into one another – hazardous waves, high enough for us to surf.
But Purim slipped quickly into Pesach: a journey of a very different kind. While Purim saw me gingerly leaving my comfort zone, I was now deep in the woods. Chavrutot had had me greedily tasting everything: ‘Ecclesiastes’ ; ‘Song of Songs’ ; ‘The Kuzari’; Rambam’s ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ but fruit never entirely satisfies, and I found myself seeking something more substantial.
I have been learning in a ‘safe’ environment; one where people reproach each other on the slightest mispronunciation of vowel-less Hebrew text, but affirm with conviction the existence of a benevolent God. Some say that Adam, biblical ‘first man’, ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil so that he would then need to strive for his place in paradise. What is there to a life without struggle or tension? I was off to find that tree.
With all the naivety of a child assuming herself indestructible, I walked away from that benign shelter, ignoring the reassuring trail of breadcrumbs, and plunged into the darkest part of the woods. In the distance I could now see the enchanted house: I would return, back to England for Pesach, back home. Journeys like this tug dangerously at the youthful threads of life’s carpet. With every step forward I took, my desire to look back grew. I was going home but was I equipped? Had I fully understood the challenge that the domestic would throw at my faith?
The flight boarded, my nerves tightened. I feared turbulence would turn to tragedy. As a child I loved to fly: roller-coaster butterflies fluttering during take-off and landing; hostesses handing out small colouring books to restless children; the distinct taste of neatly compartmentalised airplane food and the gallery of distorted, drooling, open-mouthed sleepers. But, then again, as a child everything was easy, possibilities endless – but you get older and such possibilities lose their charm.
My eyes were squeezed so tightly shut that colourful, fuzzy circles began drifting in a sea of black; my slippery hands were pointlessly clenching the indifferent grey armrest. And why was I nervous? It dawned on me that every plane ride I took would, like a sharpener, refine the tip of the pencil that would one day write the story of my life. What had started out a childish desire for adventure was fast becoming my fast-track ticket out of ‘Never-Never Land’.
A minus 8-degree arrival was a more severe welcome than I had anticipated. Home – my imaginary ‘house in the woods’ – was all cake-crumbs and marzipan – little had I guessed how cold it would be! I was numbed physically but also emotionally. It seemed as though my mouth (which has strived unceasingly all year to shape the language of the bible) had been anaesthetised. Had I not listened as a child when told not to speak with my mouth full?
Pesach was fast approaching; let’s face it, a festival hardly known for its culinary delights (unless of course you are my Father and you wait impatiently each year for ‘Cinnamon Balls’ and ‘Bubaleh’, and by ‘impatiently’ I mean, you eat those foods all year round!) I was looking forward to the verbal exchanges I would enjoy at the Seder, when it seems we eat only to replenish the power to speak.
On my return to England I visited a Scottish university. While there, I had faced a cascade of questions from non-Jewish girls curious to find out all about this strange, wondrously mythical creature: the Jew. But the challenge that lay ahead was more daunting; explaining the Jew to the Jews! My Seder table would be as diverse as the Seder plate. The bitter Jew, like a stalk of horseradish, resembling a tree-trunk ripped from its roots and branches; the hard, stubborn Jew who, like the shank bone, has been burnt with the years; the joker who, like the odoriferous Egg, tries to overwhelm the guests; the one whose participation (if the atmosphere consents) is like parsley and goes fairly well with any dish; and the one who tries to bring all of these types together: the Charoset of the bunch.
Sitting at Seder, ‘chad pa’ami’ (single serving) bowls lined the table and familiar, ageing faces took their places. I had banked on making this experience a successful one, but who knew what dark plans were unfolding in the minds of the guests. As we began this meal of orders, my father’s opening order was to pour the first cup. I watched with déjà vu as red liquid danced to the top of my glass. The last time I had faced a cup so large, filled with this spiller-of-secrets, was 30 days before: Purim. Back then, apprehensive, I knew I would be entering an unknown garden where trees stretched out their fruitful branches even to strangers. But this time I knew my crowd. Surrounded by family, I was all too aware of the curved matzo balls that are so easily thrown. At Purim, I was floating, unaware of the shore I was approaching, but Seder night, flushed with wine, the sea parted and I could see the way. A familiar text (and pillow) to lean on, the atmosphere warmed as if in harmony with my feelings.
My house in the woods was indeed enchanted; the wine relieved the chill of just hours earlier and each guest imparted something of value. Scepticism helped us delve deeper and discuss further the ambiguities of the Pesach Haggada. It became evident that conflicting characters adorned our table like the four cups of wine. Here, there was room for all four sons. This house I had imagined as made of cake and confectionary could for once be enjoyed, free of sorcery!
Chaos and order danced together throughout that Seder night. It didn’t matter that some of us understood the traditional Haggada tales as myth, others as fact and still others as metaphor. The structure of the Pesach meal could easily support all of these outlooks. Purim may have allowed for a peek at The Infinite but, paradoxically, the glimpse was only fleeting. Around the Seder table, however, a few loosening sips of wine and we all felt the presence of infinity. There seemed no end to the telling of our tale, from our birth as a people up to the present moment. Appositely, Rav Hutner explores (in ‘Pachad Yitzchak’) the importance of ‘haste’ to the Israelites baking matzot before leaving Egypt. According to him, this has less to do with their being harried by the Egyptians and more to do with a race against time itself as Israel experienced the transition from a people to a nation and strove to transcend the prison of time and become the children of infinity.
Both Seder nights over, I was straight back on a plane to Israel. Unlike the traditional end to the story, where the curious children finally make it home after escaping that enchanted house in the wood, I saw no harm in returning. If structure could be constructed in the midst of disorder, like it had been in London that Seder night, I no longer felt afraid of the unknown; my uncertain future.
I will leave you with a short but insightful phrase that my Grandfather E-mailed me after our lively discussion at the Seder:
“Debate is no guarantee of arriving at the truth, but at least it opens a door for the search for truth to continue.”
A search I believe to be endless.