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What My Five Year Old Taught Me About Jesus on Passover

04/03/2015 01:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

Her eyes were watering at light speed. The thin skin under her eyes and over her nose turning pinker and pinker as she tried to control her oncoming tears, trying to be a big girl. I opened up my arms and sighed, "Oh honey, I'm sorry," which was the only thing I could think to say. Her mouth curled downward and she wailed as she fell into my lap. The only words I could understand  were, "But... Moses!"

As we do every year, we were watching our family copy of The Ten Commandments, and for the first time, my twins were old enough to pretty much understand the import and impact of the things they were watching. They knew the story, they knew the reason for the Passover celebration, and they had been loving the Cecil B. DeMille masterpiece (in digestible 45-minute chunks) all day long. They loved the little girl Miriam, following her baby brother down the Nile. They loved Bithia, the beautiful princess who pulled the baby from the water and named him and loved him. They loved Nefretiri, so unfathomably beautiful, laughing and throwing flowers at Moses.

Oh, how they loved Moses.

And then, Rameses. "Why is he so mean?" they asked me, and I told them that sometimes, people are mean when they have no business being so. Rameses, with his fierce eyes and his sneering smile.

They had been rapt while Moses explored life as a slave. Enamored as he fell in love with Sephora ("But what about the princess? Doesn't he still love her?" "Yes, honey, but sometimes when you lose somebody you love, you can learn to love somebody else."), and then ecstatic when the real movie began -- Moses, returning to Egypt, to demand Pharoah free the Jewish slaves.

THIS was what they'd been waiting for, and I get it.

Probably 25 days of the month, I'm pretty much an atheist. I love my heritage and my traditions, but God? I'm not so sure about that most of the time. Not on Passover, though. On Passover, I can't help myself. No amount of logic and reason can stop me from just plain believing in the miracles. Even if they were all natural events -- a volcano staining the Nile red, which forced frogs to flee the water, who started an ecological chain reaction that resulted in disease and blight. And maybe those just happened to correspond with an eclipse that darkened just one day, and maybe this all just HAPPENED to occur just as the 20 year locusts awoke from their hibernation. Sure, that's reasonable enough.

But it doesn't mean that all that coincidence isn't enough to call it a miracle.

The children watched as Moses led the slaves from Egypt, into the Red Sea. As the waters parted, and then as he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. All this as I came in and out of the room, running commentary and answering questions.

And then, the end. Moses, his beard long and white, telling Joshua to go on and lead the people to the Holy Land, because he -- Moses -- would not be going.

"What is Moses doing?" SI asked, and I tried to explain that he wouldn't be going to the Holy Land with them.

And the tears started.

As she sobbed in my lap, I found myself crying too. She was right, it wasn't fair. Moses had given up everything, twice, more, in order to do what was right and what was good. He had been a prince -- living in the palace, positioned to be Pharoah himself, maybe. But he had given it up because he had to learn the truth about himself, and protect the people he came from. And then, when that truth banished him and nearly condemned him to death, and he had somehow found a new life and a new chance at happiness, he left it all again.

He gave up everything he knew and loved, and then? Watched all he had fought for, strived for, hoped for, march off into the distance and across the River Jordan, leaving him behind.

I remembered Hebrew School classes where we talked about Moses not being permitted to enter the Holy Land. About how he had angered God with his temper and his impatience, with his humanity, in effect. And his punishment for this was that he could never truly leave the Egyptian dessert.

Where is the justice in that?

I told SI that Moses was too old. That he was far too old to lead the people into the wars that would come after they crossed the river, and then distracted her into a long conversation about the history of military conflict in Israel, and how bad grownups can be at sharing, and how there is nothing on earth they are worse at sharing than the Holy Land.

Effectively distracted from the sacrifice of Moses, the kids agreed to instead watch the Lambchop Passover special, and I put it on and escaped to make dinner. But I was deeply unsettled.

In all my years of celebrating Passover, this last aspect of the story has never moved me as much as it did in that moment, if at all. That Moses was not permitted to enter the Holy Land was simply a fact -- after the real meat of the story had finished. Denouement. An invitation to the Passover sequel.

Now, I see it differently.

We sit down to the seder every year, to retell the story of Moses, leading the people from Egypt. We tell the story not of his birth and life, but only of his role in leading the people from slavery. We tell the story so we will always remember, in every age there is somebody who tries to destroy our people, and they always fail -- that there is always salvation.

We attribute it to God, but the truth is that we are honoring the selflessness of individuals who gave everything they had for a greater good.

It's said that in the time of the Messiah, the only holiday Jews will continue to celebrate is Purim -- in which the role of God is vague and undefined, because it is the triumph of people, and not of God's will overcoming a human plot to annihilate the Jews. In all our other holidays, it is God we celebrate, but Purim is the feast of Esther.

Passover is not the feast of Moses.

It is for us to put ourselves not in his place, but the place of any other of our ancestors in slavery, and to remember. "This is because of what the Lord did for me, when I was a slave in Egypt."

Not what Moses did.

Perhaps this is why I have always romanticized him so much. Maybe it wasn't growing up with the image in my head of a Charleton Heston in his prime, muscled and bronzed and kind and wise- after all, who could moon too much over Charleton Heston with Yul Brynner standing shirtless beside him?

Maybe this is why Moses holds so much affection and so much admiration for us- not just because it was he who led the Jews from Egypt- either by the means of the story, or some other, subtler, forgotten means, but because his reward was his deeds alone. He put an end to the enslavement of the Jews, and taught them the Torah, and said goodbye. His feet never touched the land of his people.

The next day, the girls got distracted in conversation about Easter Eggs. As we walked through an Easter display in the grocery store, DD tugged on my sleeve. "Mommy? What is Easter about?"

The memory rose of her sobbing in church two years ago when I told her that the Baby Jesus in our Christmas nativity scene had died, and that's what Easter was about, and I checked myself before repeating that mistake.

"You know how Moses gave up everything in his life so he could save the Jewish slaves, and then he didn't get to go to the Holy Land? Well, Easter is kind of like that for Christians, because they say Jesus gave up everything so that he could save the Christians, only instead of not going into the Holy Land, he died, because he was already in the Holy Land."

I told them if they had any deeper questions about it, they should ask their father, but for the time being they seemed content. And remarkably, I was too. I like the idea of Easter and Passover, separated only by a few hours, coming together in the minds of my children as celebrations of the value of self sacrifice and the good of others. For the first time, I am understanding the relationship between these holidays- how it must have been at the Last Supper- a Passover Seder- for a Jewish man to tell the story of Moses saving his people only to watch as they leave him behind, knowing that the next day he too would lose everything to save the people he called his own.

I never liked Jesus more than at that moment, when he was so profoundly Jewish to me.

I don't know what meaning Passover will hold for my children in their lives to come. I don't know if they will always see this connection, this link between Moses and Jesus. Maybe for them, the maror -- bitter herbs -- will represent not only the bitterness of slavery but also of the self sacrifice of losing absolutely everything and everyone you have known and loved in order to save them.

This is the interfaith family we are building. We're eating hard boiled Easter Eggs at our family seder this year, and eating chocolate covered matzoh after church. My children singing "Dayenu" as they remember where the Easter Bunny hid their baskets last year.

It doesn't feel like a contradiction just now. It feels right.

This year, in our odd little interfaith home.

Maybe next year in Jerusalem. But right now, I'd like to stay here, learning about myself and my own faith, my own stories, from my children. At least a little while longer.