Esther Feinstein
Esther Feinstein

 A mistaken drink


The whisperings of our ancient traditions gently pour themselves onto the next generation.

To my amusement and horror, the gulp of water that begrudgingly slid painfully down my throat was not my cup or anything that I ever wanted to drink. 

The sweat, dirt, salt, abhorrent, combined mix of foods and fingers made me realize that this was not my cup of ice water. Instead, it was water that is not meant for drinking at all but is poured on men’s and boys’ fingers as a type of spiritual washing. 

The recognition of my unfortunate mistake was quite clear; the taste was unreal, and I quickly found my own cup, but it was too late, and the silly mistake stayed glued to me for some time. The bitter, foul remnants of these holy waters absorbed themselves in my taste buds and throat. 

Waters that were passed down from father to son, these waters held spiritual meaning and kabbalistic whisperings. I tried to keep this in my mind when I knew what had happened.  Although my tongue preferred not to have tasted it, there was no time capsule that could turn back the clock! 

This year was a year of darkness: desolate hopelessness and sadness that filled our

“Frozen Tundra” city. Our Chabad house was closed, rooms were strangely empty, and the expectant knock right after the holiday’s lighting never came. I couldn’t imagine not serving and putting a smile on each of my congregant’s faces, but this year no one dared to venture out. 

It was a quiet Pesach, and the silence of the usual pounding of my heart to the many guests that come as I greet them never materialized. My kids, usually helpful and in the background, became our newfound focus.

Each Passover we have our communal Seder and our family’s table in the middle of the room. The Haggadah is then said with every person partaking in the reading of the Pesach story; the table is set to the perfection of what one would imagine of so long ago. I always found myself about this time  praying a small prayer that when all eyes are looking at the rabbi and family, each little boy stays in his appointed seat.

It wouldn’t be the first Pesach where a boy of mine slid under the table. Each Passover  — as if by magic — all on cue together, one by one, my little sons would congregate there in their tight circle of friendship, brotherhood, and Chassidic imaginings. 

What always seems to surprise me is how most would either love the food or hate it!

When my husband and I decided to get married, our last major question to each other was about Passover. His response to me is what sealed our deal of matrimony. Our Chabad customs going back a few hundred years to the original city of Lubavitch in Russia meant a lot to both of us, and I couldn’t imagine not sharing this tradition with my kids and husband as a family unit. 

About the time we came out on shlichus, I decided to tell my husband my idea of gifting this tradition of ours to give to the community as well. It would be very different than the typical Chabad community seders, but I wanted my community to have a window into our behind-the-scenes lives. 

It would seem very different than what the regular Ashkenazi Jew was accustomed to, so each Passover this hidden tradition — behind closed doors but now in the open — always seemed to provoke conversation amongst the crowd with a sense of utter bewilderment. 

It wrestled within me, this idea of logic vs. emotion, and thankfully logic won out, and I allowed those to choose what they wanted to eat and what they wanted to pass on. I love when guests and family enjoy my food, especially since I just spent all night preparing the food and plating it just right for the Pesach ambiance. 

I hold myself back from complaining or feeling upset and rather enjoy the moment of sharing. Even though the Yiddish mama within me feels insulted, and my ego bruised, those congregants of ours had the right to choose to pass on some of my hard-cooked food. I remember thinking to myself that this is part of giving this beautiful tradition and gift to our spiritual children. 

However, this was not the focus and the atmosphere of a real Chabad Pesach. It is well worth it, even if that meant some wouldn’t try the food. Most guests that come would ask questions, and their eyes light up when they realize how each food symbolizes something and how healthy and natural it all can be at a Chabad Passover table. 

Some of our congregants have their own way of celebrating, and even silly things of our usual years experience I felt myself missing. One of our regular elder guests would put his lucky two-dollar bill on our office desk in hope that we would see it after the holiday. He knew the rules that this was muktzeh (not allowed on Shabbos) but felt this is his way to celebrate the holiday. The desk rather than handing it to you was his compromise. After all, it’s one step at a time.

This year though, my husband’s face said it all, and on this Pesach because of a modern-day plague, we would feel a lacking and loneliness that never showed its ugly head before. I couldn’t imagine just sitting there and letting our Passover be saddened with the grief of no company. 

What would our children say if we just sat like lumps on a chair the whole Passover? I was determined as ever to bring a sense of freedom and happiness to our home even if it meant hours of cooking. 

After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality lasted a big fifteen minutes, our children took over the night and claimed their right as our guests did, just this once. There was lively discussion and laughter, which for a small while was absent but now burst forth like bubbles on a trampoline never fully resting. 

In the midst of our Pesach day chit-chat, I heard a loud noise coming from the kitchen and sent my oldest son to see what had happened. I heard him run up the stairs and whisper to me that the soup pot had broken and to come quickly. 

As I flew down the stairs, I tried to picture the worst-case scenario as the kitchen in slow motion pulled itself toward me. The strangest sight captured my eyes. There in front of me, the top of the pot kept on bubbling up. Each time it bounced, it made this high pitch screaming sound. 

Finally, eye to eye with the lid, I saw what concerned my young son: there were these millions of cracks that etched pretty designs all on their own, and the glass readied itself to break and fall.

I didn’t know what to do. If I lifted the lid I could lose the best chicken soup that my children and I adored. The chances were so slim that it wouldn’t break. However, the kids wanted soup and so did my husband and me. The tricky game began to lift the lid and save the soup. As I lifted the lid, it amazed me not one piece of millions of shattered glass stepped out of line and the soup was saved. The minute I placed it gently on the counter, each piece gave in and the shattered glass cleared the lid and left it bare.

“Mommy, what a miracle! It’s our very own Pesach miracle!” said my oldest child, who just  touched the year of twelve.

“Yes it is, and we are so fortunate to have the best Pesach soup and enjoy your grandma’s famous recipe,” I said with an extra umph of excitement.

This silly, dangerous, but miraculous incident left me excited to put more effort in, and the Passover day meal was special and uplifting. My husband’s bentching and getting up to learn left the children to do the Mayim acharonim, holy washing themselves. They were excited to do this mitzvah and forgot to bring the holy water silver set back to the table. 

Instead, they used what some Bachurim (young yeshiva boys) might do and washed their hands with one cup pouring into the other. They carefully tapped their invisible mustaches and handed it down the line to each eager brother in need. 

The grace after meals was said and each one took turns helping to clean. I finally sat down to my cold drink and realized my mistake, but as I tried to forget what slid down my throat, I was reminded of the beautiful way in which each son took their part of the customs and pride in their ancestor’s traditions. 

I drank my kids’ holy waters by mistake, and the taste of fingers and food still sat teasing me uncomfortably in my mouth.  A custom spanning generations going back to the times of the Talmud to protect one’s fellow, this custom is set in place so the salt and dirt from one’s fingers would be cleansed before saying the grace after meals.

Just moments before I enjoyed the beautiful way my kids decided to wash their hands for the customary grace after meals and then excitedly and loudly — as if they were the father — sang the “bentching” song. To any mother, it is just music to the ears and a Nachus to the eyes to see the hard fruits of a mother’s pushing begin to shape the forebears of the next generation. 

Then one can think, what’s the big deal of drinking the holy waters by mistake, when traditions and customs are gifted to the next generation?

My children, my sons are the Jewish future of our family’s tomorrow, and I must gently push each custom, riddle, and Jewish Torah saying at them until it nudges them as a constant comfortable fly that sits on their shoulders.

I sat there quietly sipping my glass of cold water, knowing that everything seemed to work itself out. What’s the big deal of this silly mistake of drinking the holy waters? It reminded me to pay closer attention to the next cup that I decide to drink.  

About the Author
Born in New York state into a family on Shlichus, Esther was formally trained in Chabad institutions in America and Canada as an educator and community leader with the lifelong goal of helping an under-served Jewish populace. She and her husband, along with their children, have been serving the local community, as well as the Northeast Wisconsin region, for over a decade, providing for any and all needs of everyone's personal journey with G-d.
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