The first two days of Pesach (Passover) have been and gone. I spent a lot of them waiting to get on the computer to send a panicked email to my rabbi mentor asking about things I was anxious about or writing here to offload, but now the first two days of Yom Tov (festival) are over, that seems less urgent, which I suppose is good.
The positives: I got to shul (synagogue) every evening and even walked home with someone who lives in the same road as my parents, making conversation with him, which was good for social anxiety. The sederim went reasonably well in terms of doing all the mitzvot (commandments). I learnt on Friday night that I probably hadn’t been leaning correctly to fulfil the mitzvot of leaning while drinking wine and eating matzah in the past, so I was able to do that correctly this year, albeit that I felt bad for not having done it in the past, but I guess I am a tinok shenishbo (literally a Jewish child raised by non-Jews and hence ignorant of the halakhah (Jewish law) and not culpable for violations until he or she learns about it, but used by extension to apply to Jews raised in a non-observant way) here. I enjoyed the second seder in particular with my sister’s in-laws. I managed to talk a bit to my sister’s sister-in-law, who has special needs; she wanted to hug me when she left (she’s very affectionate and likes hugging everyone), which I guess means that she felt comfortable with me. I usually try to be shomer negiah (not having affectionate physical contact with members of the opposite sex other than close relations), but I thought that in this instance I wouldn’t be able to explain myself to her because of her special needs and it was better just to avoid upsetting her.
The other positive experience was that some family friends came over today for kiddush (refreshments before lunch) and I got to spend some time playing with their young children (aged one and three or four), which I always enjoy. I know that some autistic people find it easier to be with animals than people; I get nervous around animals, but I like young children. I feel children just accept me for who I am without my needing to pretend to be anything I’m not. And it’s easier to make conversation with young children than adults; just point to something and ask what it is or what colour it is and they’ll be happy to tell you and if you can’t think of anything to say, they don’t care about that either.
The more negative side of Yom Tov was that parts of the sederim were difficult (the seder is the meal on the first two nights of Pesach when we recite the story of the slavery and exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and eat symbolic foods). The first night in particular we had some guests who weren’t particularly religious or into the seder service and I struggled to involve them. I always find a few commentaries to go a bit deeper than the basic text of the story of the exodus, but I felt, perhaps wrongly, that people weren’t that interested. I would like to ask some open questions to involve people (e.g. “do you think we are still enslaved today?” type questions), but I always find that hard – it always sounds a bit fake to me, or perhaps fake coming from me, as I don’t really speak like that generally. I also worry that people will feel put on the spot and forced to join in. I would love to go to a seder where there is a deep religious discussion of the exodus story and the Jewish conception of slavery and freedom, going much further than the prescribed text, but instead every year I find myself trying to involve other people. To be fair, it varies from year to year and the first seder this year was a particularly difficult one, but I feel a bit like I’m doing kiruv (trying to get non-religious Jews to be aware of their heritage), which is not something I’m naturally good at. I don’t want to sound arrogant or snobbish, but it can be very frustrating being the most Jewishly-educated and Jewishly-involved person at the seder, trying to learn something myself and pass on some of my enthusiasm to others, all the while dealing with my own social anxiety, depression and/or borderline autism. I don’t think I managed it very well, although, as my parents say, these relatives do keep coming back year after year, so they must get something out of our seder.
The other biggish problem was OCD. Over the last two days I had quite a bit of this, albeit at a much less intense level than in the past. Some of it was the usual Pesach OCD, worrying that I had come into contact with chametz (leavened bread and food cooked with it or in vessels it has been cooked in, all forbidden on Pesach), which I expected, but some of it was new. Lately I find that I have had a bit of OCD in prayer and mitzvah performance, worrying that I don’t have enough kavannah (usually translated as ‘concentration’ or ‘intent’, but perhaps a more appropriate word is (to use an overused buzz word) ‘mindfulness,’ being aware of the meaning of a prayer or mitzvah and doing it consciously and thoughtfully). I worried that I had the wrong intention in listening to prayers and doing mitzvot and repeated them, or I felt I hadn’t listened to my father’s prayers properly and repeated them quietly, then worried that I had upset him or shamed him in front of others by implying that I didn’t think that his recital was good enough. I don’t quite know what to do about this, other than trying to speak to my rabbi mentor about kavannah at some point. It is not a bad thing to be aware of kavannah, and it is essential for both prayer and mitzvah performance, but as always with the OCD it gets out of control and becomes an impediment to spiritual growth rather than an aid to it.
I also slept rather too much. I actually dozed off for twenty minutes or so during Pesach preparations on Friday, which was probably a good thing overall, but I felt a bit bad about sleeping when there was so much to do. Obviously the sederim meant the last two nights were very late, but I slept late into the morning both yesterday and today, sleeping right through my alarms, being exhausted and having what I term a ‘mental hangover’ from late nights and intense social interactions during then days and then sleeping for another two hours after lunch, waking just in time to go to shul (synagogue) for Mincha and Ma’ariv (afternoon and evening prayers) before starting the cycle all over again. Sleeping too much during the day probably led to my being insomniac last night, lying in bed with racing thoughts and not able to do much to calm down (I did eventually read a little bit until I felt more tired). It’s nearly midnight now and I don’t feel at all tired and I still have to have something to eat and to shower before I go to bed.
It has to be said that things were much better than they had been for the previous few years. The OCD, when it came, was much more subdued, with none of the extreme agitation and fear that God hates me and most of the time there was at least part of my mind that had things in the right perspective; I was often able to do things that the OCD was telling me were wrong because part of my mind told me that they were not wrong, and if they were, that would be a genuine mistake, not a deliberate sin. I held on to a few anxieties all through Yom Tov to ask my rabbi mentor about afterwards, but having now sat down with them, most of them seem obviously trivial and OCD and I don’t know if I will ask about all of them, although I will probably ask about some.
One last thing that happened was that some of the yeshiva bachurim (rabbinical seminary students) at shul gave ten minute divrei Torah (religious talks) today between Mincha and Ma’ariv. While this did make me feel a bit upset that I no longer feel able, or have the opportunity, to give such divrei Torah as I have in the past, I got a lot out of the talks. In particular, it was interesting to see that the four men had different personalities, educational styles and topics, which reassured me a bit that becoming frum (religious) doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a conformist, although I do still fret that I’m too much of a non-conformist. One thing that did resonate was a little one-line tangent in one of the divrei Torah; the main theme was the idea that everything comes from God and that we should use it to serve Him. As an aside, the person noted that while people understand this to mean money, it really means everything, including things such as talents. It resonated with my current thinking that I need to use my writing in a more productive way. I don’t know why God would give me a talent for writing about science fiction television – it seems a very strange talent or mission to have, from a religious point of view – but that seems to be where He wants me to be right now.
OK, off to eat matzah and cheese and/or matzah and jam now, which, perhaps surprisingly, I haven’t had yet this Pesach (not jam and cheese at the same time, though, that wouldn’t be good).