Marianne Novak

The end of firsts

We’ve just completed the holiday of Pesach. Pesach, essentially, is a holiday of memory- we are commanded to remember our redemption from slavery in Egypt. The curious thing about this remembrance is that the commandment in the Torah text- to remember the Exodus from Egypt by observing the Passover holiday, occurs before the actual event. We are commanded to remember redemption before we are actually redeemed from Egypt- In Exodus,Shemot we read in Parashat Bo – Chapter 12, verse 14.

​יד והיה היום הזה לכם לזכרון וחגתם אתו חג לה׳ לדרתיכם חקת עולם תחגהו:
And this day shall be to you for a memorial; you shall keep it as a holiday to the Lord throughout your generations; you shall keep it a holiday by an ordinance forever.

The pesukim go on to tell of all the elements of the Pesach holiday -but, again, all of this is being described before the last plague of the Killing of the Firstborn and the miracle that the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Jews. In verses 24-25 it states:

​כד ושמרתם את-הדבר הזה לחק-לך ולבניך עד-עולם:
And you shall observe this thing for an ordinance to you and your children forever.
​כה והיה כי-תבאו אל-הארץ אשר יתן ה׳ לכם כאשר דבר ושמרתם את-העבדה הזאת:
And it shall come to pass when you come to the land which God will give you as He has promised , that you will keep this service.

Here, we, as slaves, are not only tasked with marking time but also to imagine a future – to dream big- a future with not only freedom but a land of our own, where that time will be marked forever. It is a eternal dividing line of what came before and what came after.

This Pesach marks the ends of all the firsts since Batsheva z’l took her own life. Pesach will also be the marker for me and my family for it was last Pesach when Batsheva was alive and we were all together as a family.

Last year we decided to go away to a Pesach program in Key Largo, Florida. The program— to put it mildly—was very disorganized and a bunch of outrageous things happened- we initially didn’t have a table for our first Seder, they kept running out of food, the chef threw a knife at the mashigiach and the police were called, a guest threw a wine glass (which broke) at a server, and the police were called again, the staff in protest toward the end of the holiday, threw out all the matzah and, lastly,to top it all off, on the last days of Yom Tov, someone defiled the pool which then had to closed for cleaning- but at least the police weren’t called.

The first Seder was particularly challenging and chaotic and Batsheva saw that I was having a hard time. But she grabbed my hand from underneath the table to calm me down and let me know that despite all the tumult around us, I shouldn’t worry about it and that we’d all laugh about it later.

After the first two days of the holiday, we were able to enjoy ourselves- we went to feed tarpon with hungry pelicans trying to get every morsel from the fish, we enjoyed the beach and the pool, we went parasailing. And then Batsheva dehydrated terribly and we had to take her to the local hospital. But she felt better and perked up. The next day we took a boat trip out to go snorkeling. Batsheva participated but decided to come out of the water early and sit quietly on the boat. She seemed serene and deep in thought. I asked her if she was okay and she replied, ‘Yes, mom. I’m fine.’ On the return boat trip back to the resort, I noticed how my family seemed so happy to be together and I actively told myself to remember this moment—a similar moment when we, just my family, were dancing together at the s’machot, Bat and Bar Mitzvah celebrations of my children—to remember, to note, how much happiness I was feeling at that moment and how lucky I was to have such a wonderful husband and such beautiful and incredible children.

In retrospect, however, this was the moment where Batsheva most likely decided to go forward with a plan to rid herself of the excruciating pain that her anxiety, eating disorder and depression -essentially, her very bad brain disease- was causing her. That was her marker- her before and after.

Pesach, unlike all the other firsts we had to endure—Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, our annual winter break trip to Israel—was incredibly difficult, because her absence was so palpably felt. It was so plainly evident that she was missing. To make it tolerable this Pesach, I imagined her with us, enjoying our activities in Jamaica-zip lining, the beach, the pool, the bobsled ride, tubing down a beautiful river and snorkeling. I saw her laughing with her siblings and the relief that this program, unlike the year before, had its act together.

When Batsheva died, many told us, with the best of intentions, that we would always have the wonderful memories of Batsheva z’l. What they didn’t and don’t understand is those memories are not just bittersweet but are torturous because they are a visceral reminder that our dear, smart , kind, fun and beautiful Batsheva is not coming back to this world.

Because the act of remembering at this point is so painful, I am so very frightened that by avoiding the memories, I will come to forget her and forget that she lived a life- a beautiful, happy and loving life to the end and that, in her almost 19 years, she made the lives of so many people so much better and happier. I want to be able to remember hopefully someday without the memory causing such sharp pain.

As, we come to this end of firsts, I will obligate myself to include Batsheva z’l in my new memories in the way that I included her this Pesach. I will allow her presence to join me now and in the future and perhaps this will allow me to access the past, with her holding my hand, letting me know everything will be okay.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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