It is 1:15 a.m. on seder night. My fatigue is settling in, along with the brisket. It’s a good, satisfying fatigue, born of the hard work I have done – with the help of my children – to clean, shop, cook and make a seder for family and friends. After 22 years of making seder, I admit to occasional twinges of “Pesach resort envy,” often triggered when fielding calls from friends wishing me an early good Yom Tov because their families are about to take off for their Pesach retreats in Scotland, Italy, Florida or Israel. Meanwhile, I am going mano-a-mano with the business side of a scrubby sponge in the kitchen, reaching for the nethermost regions of the stovetop and inside the fridge.
I admit to occasional twinges of “Pesach resort envy.”
My husband and our kids insist that there’s no place better for seder than home. That’s a compliment I appreciate, and I focus on making Pesach with a feeling of appreciation and joy. Still, every year I start to get shpilkes around 1 a.m. Those who haven’t drifted off to sleep are singing Hallel, but I am distracted by the thought that the brisket needs to be tucked into the fridge and other food put away. I head to the kitchen feeling happy, infused with a spiritual glow. More than ever before this year, I feel connected to the experience of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt. More than ever this year, I feel a transcendent connection to my Jewish identity, to God, and through my children, to the Jewish future.
That feeling lasts about thirty seconds. No sooner do I fling open the refrigerator door than I recoil in horror: The refrigerator light goes on. I forgot to set the holiday mode before I lit candles! I let the door fall shut, and faster than you could shout “Dayenu!” all that spiritual “aliyah” of the seder goes pfffft! Gone, in an instant!
Suddenly I am resentful and mad. Does God really want me to have to throw out all this brisket, at $8.99 a pound? Where am I supposed to find an understanding non-Jew at nearly 1:30 a.m. to whom I can explain my inability to press a single button on my refrigerator and hint that I would like him or her to do it instead? How insane would that sound? Would it be so terrible if I set the holiday mode, just this once? Why does this religion have to have so many rules? And just what am I supposed to feed my guests for second seder if I can’t store my food in the fridge? Tuna fish?
I announce the bitter news at the table and complain about the impossibility of finding any redemption to this situation. “Don’t worry, Ma! It’s all going to be fine,” my eldest son says. I glower at him. How dare he display such unwavering faith at a time like this! His blithe disregard for my situation annoys me. We open our dining room shutters, looking for the implausible appearance of a friendly looking person wandering the streets of our very Jewish neighborhood who is not Jewish. Meanwhile, the rest of my family has the audacity to continue singing. I sit there feeling like a fraud, a spiritual faker.
I am ashamed of myself. What is my suffering compared to that of our ancestors, enslaved for hundreds of years? They had reason to complain! Yet the old “This too is for the good” philosophy refuses to kick in. I wonder what message God is sending me. All I had wanted was to make Pesach with joy!
At 1:30, my husband and one of our sons go outside to scan the street. All we see are Jews, Jews everywhere. The land is filled with them! Usually, it’s a comforting feeling to find a landsman in a time of trouble, but not in this case. We get excited for one moment seeing a couple heading toward a car, but unfortunately, they are Jews, too.
At 1:45, as I feel myself falling to the 49th level of spiritual darkness, the same low level the Jews had fallen to when God realized they were nearly irredeemable. As I fight tears of frustration and wonder how to elegantly serve canned tuna for second seder, a car slowly pulls up and parks directly across the street from my house. Like a shot, my husband and eldest son fly out the door, and I wonder if the sight of grown men wearing long white robes hurtling toward him might not just scare the heck out of him. I watch from the dining room, holding my breath, as my crew talks with the man. To my utter amazement, I watch the driver get out of his car and enter my house.
My non-Jewish savior, my “Yom Tov goy,” has arrived.
He walks into the house and I am rendered nearly speechless. But not quite. I blabber excessive thank-yous and apologize for the intrusion. “I realize you must think we’re very strange,” I offer. The young man holds up one hand to stop me – not that I blame him – explaining that he is a waiter for Shiloh’s, a kosher restaurant three blocks away, and has just finished working at a seder they hosted. “I know all about it,” he explains cheerfully.
In the kitchen, I show him how to set the holiday mode. And with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, the waiter from Shiloh’s sets the holiday mode, saving not only my brisket but my sanity as well. I offer him some brisket as a thank you, but he declines. He comes and goes within three minutes, his appearance inexplicable. Shiloh’s is literally down the block from our house, yet for some reason he pulled up directly across from our house to make a phone call.
That night I gained a spiritual high, lost it in a moment, and then regained it in a much more profound way. As miracles go, I know that sending a non-Jew to perform a small task for us is no great shakes compared to, say, splitting a sea or smiting of the first-born. But on that seder night, it was the biggest miracle I could have asked for, a full redemption, and a reminder that God knows what we need and sends it when we need it.
We all finished singing Hallel.
A modified version of this column originally appeared in Jewish Action magazine.