Well, it’s nearly half past midnight and I’m wide awake for reasons I will explain shortly. I thought I would write up my experiences over the first two days of Pesach (Passover).
I’ve been doing a lot better than in previous years, but the last few days have not been without their difficulties. The sederim were the hardest things. The seder is the ritualised meal on the first two nights of Pesach where we discuss the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and eat symbolic food. There are readings from Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), including several Tehillim (Psalms) known together as Hallel, and further readings from the Talmud.
Some tension emerged, not so much at the time as over the two days, because my brother-in-law felt that he wanted to do more at the seder, whereas I felt replaced by him when he sang some of the Psalms and songs with tunes I didn’t know and couldn’t join in with. I spent some time thinking about it afterwards, and decided there were two issues. One was that, since my grandfather died, I’ve read the whole of Hallel each year, most of it alone. Everyone says how well I do it and compares me to my grandfather (who I was probably closer to than to my other grandparents, at least in the last years of his life). So I felt sidelined from the family and no longer linked to my grandfather. I was especially aware over the weekend that my sister and BIL are both professionals with advancing careers and a large, recently refurbished, house and I assume (from the size of their house) that they are planning to start a family. So I felt that I’m being pushed out of the family and that my sister and BIL and their future children will be the focus of family events from now on.
I know no one is deliberately sidelining me, but that’s how it felt. I did speak to my BIL today and we did work out a compromise to divide some of the readings of the seder, so I feel a bit better now, but the feeling that my sister and BIL are living a better life than me and that they are more of a source of nachas (pride) to my parents than I am isn’t going to go away and will probably only get worse if they do have children (although I’m looking forward to being an eccentric bachelor uncle).
The bigger struggle is with the seder itself. I try to find some inspiring Torah thoughts to expand on the set text of the haggadah and try to make it more than just reading the same passages every year, to find something different and, hopefully, meaningful. I don’t know how much anyone gets out of this. My parents appreciate it, but I’m not sure that our other guests (usually family and a couple of friends of my parents) do. At least, they don’t say anything to me. I would like to start discussions, which is what a seder should be, but it doesn’t seem to happen. Yesterday one person did ask me something, but I struggled to understand what he was asking (I think it was based on a misunderstanding or false premise, but could not pin down what he was asking to work out what), but it just underlined how much the seder is not what I want it to be.
The problem is this. This is going to sound arrogant, but at the seder, I’m usually the most Jewishly knowledgeable and religious person present by some margin, so I struggle to find anyone to engage with and surprise or inspire me. Add to this an autistic lack of social skills that make it hard for me to engage with other people generally and bring a subject to life and it’s a recipe for disaster. My rabbi mentor and my oldest friend are both rabbis, intelligent and knowledgeable, but I suspect (know, really) that both would enjoy the challenge of this kind of environment. They would find ways of connecting, of getting the people present to talk about their own experience and thoughts on freedom, liberation, Judaism and so on even if they couldn’t anchor it to specific Jewish texts without help. I just can’t do it.
At both seders I fell at times into depression because of this. It didn’t help that sometimes I needed a time-out for autism (too much noise, too much talking) or for OCD (I went out to breathe deeply and to calm myself after being triggered). I found myself thinking of an old joke after the seder last night. A man goes to the doctor and says, “I’m really depressed.” The doctor says, “Pagliacci the clown is in town. Go and see him, that will cheer you up.” The man says, “Doctor, I am Pagliacci!” (Assume this is before the invention of antidepressants.) I try to inspire everyone year after year, but what do I do if I need inspiration? I feel the pressure sometimes of being the frummest (most religious) person in my family (OK, second frummest after my cousin who is training to be a rabbi (and a civil engineer), but he lives in Israel).
One thing that was popular was some visual aids I made, which I haven’t really tried before. They were just some photocopies from the biblical archaeology book Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier, pictures of things like slaves and overseers from Egyptian temples, a brick store and a map of the Nile Delta and the probable route of the exodus, but people seemed to like them, so I need to work out what similar things I can find for next year.
I mentioned needing some time-outs during the seder for OCD and autism. The autism was the main problem, and I couldn’t cope with the meal part of the evening yesterday: the noise, combined with all the emotional upheaval (which triggered my depression) was too much for me and I ate quickly and went upstairs to read The Complete Peanuts until we were ready to resume the ritual side of the evening. I only had one or two time-outs for OCD, which was pretty good going. On the whole the OCD has been OK. I even coped with the weirdness of products that were hechshered (stamped) as kosher for Pesach by some kashrut agencies, but also certified as only suitable for non-Pesach use by others on the same packaging. I suspect that this is down to differing stringencies (Pesach is a great time of year for some rabbis/communities trying out weird stringencies that no one else worries about). More taxing was a shiur (class) in shul (synagogue) titled “Kashering Ovens for Pesach“. My heart sank when I saw that title. Sure enough it triggered me, even though I knew that my rabbi mentor and my parents’ rabbi had approved how we kashered our oven. The excessive use of Hebrew halakhic (legal) terminology I didn’t understand just made me feel further alienated and ignorant and reinforced my feelings about not being part of my community.
I woke up earlyish on Shabbat and made it to shul about an hour late. I stayed for about two hours, until the end of the service, the first time I’d been to a Shabbat or Yom Tov (festival) morning service since Yom Kippur. However, I struggled to sleep last night and overslept this morning. I then dozed for two and a half hours in the afternoon and am wide awake now, hence blogging.
And that’s it really. Another six days of Pesach left. The last six days are usually easier, but I had a bad spell late on day five and day six last year, so I won’t predict plain sailing from here, but hopefully it should be more manageable. It’s 2am now (I haven’t been writing this uninterruptedly, but it has taken me a while). I don’t feel at all tired and I’m vaguely anxious (OCD anxious) about something, but I guess I should at least try to go to bed.