It was the first night of Passover, and I was trying to coax my four-year-old into a clean outfit for the Seder. Her polka-dotted tank top from two summers ago and mismatched biking shorts didn’t seem appropriate for a formal religious dinner on a cold evening in Chicago.
She rejected each outfit I suggested.
“No, no, no, no, and no, with a side of no,” she chanted, as I pointed to dresses in her closet.
“I’ll wear that one,” she said finally, pointing to her favorite ice skating costume with the royal blue and white-satin-trimmed tulle tutu.
“Fine,” I said. All I said was that she had to wear something clean, after all.
“I don’t want to go to Passover,” she said. I don’t necessarily want to go to Passover either, I thought to myself, given my own complicated emotions around this particular holiday.
“What is Passover anyway?” she asked.
“Passover is the holiday where Jewish people celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Moses kept asking the Pharoah to let the Jewish people go, but Pharoah refused. So God sent ten plagues to the Egyptians.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, recognition lighting up her face. “We learned about this in Sunday school. I remember some of the plagues. There were bugs that ruined the crops. And the animals died and there were frogs and the people didn’t have enough to eat.”
“Yes,” I told her. “And the name Passover comes from the tenth plague, the worst one.” I swallowed hard and continued. “God ordered the killing of the firstborn son of each of the Egyptian families. The Jewish families marked the front door of their houses with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, so that God knew to pass over their houses and spare their firstborn sons. See? Pass Over?”
My daughter looked at me but said nothing. She remained quiet, an uncommon phenomenon.
When she spoke, her voice was uncertain and confused.
“Is God one of the bad guys?” she whispered.
“Umm, tell me what you mean,” I responded, unsure where this was going.
“Well, he killed those babies. But they didn’t do anything. And he made the animals sick and they died. So, is God one of the bad guys?” she said again.
Her question gutted me. I’ve agonized over Passover for the past twelve years, ever since the loss of our first baby. A boy.
My little girl brought up an issue that I cannot reconcile– does God value the life of one person over another? Why were the lives of innocent Egyptian children worth less than the lives of innocent Jewish slaves? In my own life experiences, I identify more closely with the grieving Egyptian mother than with the soul in bondage, but only because I have never been without my freedom, not for one minute of my incredibly blessed life.
“It is really awful to think about innocent children dying,” I said to my little girl. “Sometimes, when people are trying to make changes to the way things are, there are other people who are afraid of those changes, so they say NO! But sometimes, the thing that needs to change is so important that the people saying YES! have to fight back against the people saying NO! And innocent people can get hurt during the fight. Do you remember the three things that cause many wars?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Land, money and power. Like in Maleficent! The bad king wanted land and power, so he started a war with the fairy creatures.”
I said, “Yep. The king was afraid of Maleficent because she had power. He was willing to hurt and kill others so he could try to take away her power. And then, it got confusing. Because Maleficent – who had been good and kind and pure—well, she became willing to hurt and kill people in trying to get her revenge and keep her power. Sometimes people on both sides of a war get hurt, especially when both sides really believe that they are right.” My daughter was listening, rapt.
“The Pharoah was willing to hurt and kill the Jews to keep them under his power as slaves. And God knew that slavery was wrong and that the Jews deserved to be free. But in trying to make the Pharoah let the Jewish people go, God made war upon the Egyptians, and innocent people get hurt in war.”
“Why do we have war, if people get hurt?” my little one asked.
“Because sometimes war seems to be the only way to make scary changes happen,” I answered. “And even the good guys can make decisions that cause people to get hurt, because they don’t see another way. Like how Abraham Lincoln ended up sending thousands of innocent soldiers to their deaths in the Civil War while they were fighting to free the black slaves and save the Union. It’s very sad. And as far as Passover goes, you are right that those innocent animals and children didn’t deserve to die. During the Seder, we remember the ten plagues and the terrible suffering of the Egyptian people.”
My little girl, so young and so old, climbed into my lap for a cuddle. I pressed my lips into her wild curls and felt all the feelings. Sad for the lost Egyptian boys and their mamas who lived with such immeasurable loss. Grateful for the freedom of my people and the luxury of freedom of worship in my country. Joyful for my healthy, curious child who asks such amazing questions. Hopeful that I can give good answers. Astonished that a child so young can ask questions that remind me of the great costs of the freedom I enjoy.
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear (Harper Collins, 2012). www.carriegoldmanauthor.com