Passover, Fatherhood, and the Power of Names

“Baruch ata Adonai…” recites my grandmother in Hebrew, as she lights the Passover candles.

Her son, my Jewish father, sits to my left. My Catholic mother is at the other end of the room. About 15 friends and relatives are crammed around my parents’ dining room table, where I sat every Sunday night for CCD during middle school. There are a few more Catholics than Jews in total, including my brother and sister, my wife Genevieve and our daughter, and me.

My parents started hosting the Passover Seder about fifteen years ago, when Grandma moved from Dad’s childhood home to a smaller place. It’s my favorite family tradition.

Each spring, united with Jews all over the world, we recount the story of how God led Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We read aloud through the Haggadah – “telling” in Hebrew – and eat ritual foods that symbolize different parts of the Exodus. (Parsley and salt water for the bitter tears shed while in bondage; a mixture of nuts and apples called charoset for the mortar used to build the pyramids; matzah for the unleavened bread the Hebrews ate hastily before fleeing.) There’s a break for a big meal, and then we take the Haggadahs out again for a few more prayers and songs.

For as long as I can remember, an essential part of the celebration has been making sure we have someone there who has never attended a Seder before. I think it was my Jewish grandmother’s idea, who helped our family get started in its interfaith experiment by hosting my baptism party at her house when I was an infant. My mom keeps a box of homemade Passover place-cards that grows every year, all made with blue and yellow colored pencils to match the candles and tablecloth. All the names are there, including those people who came just once more than a decade ago: middle school friends, the quiet kid from the local college who came because he knew some relatives of ours where he grew up across the country, the neighbors’ Swedish au pair, and many more.

Last year, the first-timer distinction belonged to our daughter, who was just nine months old at the time. She had her own brand-new place-card, which we set in front of her high chair on the table. This got me thinking about names.

Genevieve and I didn’t know if we would be welcoming a boy or girl when we got to the hospital in July 2015, so we had narrowed the name possibilities down to two for each gender. A girl arrived, and, utterly overwhelmed and in awe, we spent the first hour in the recovery room gazing at her and not saying much of anything.

Then, while holding her for the first time, I said, “I’ve been calling her Adelaide in my head.”

“Me too,” Gen replied. That seemed like a good sign, and so Adelaide it was – Addie for short.

Gen and I had discussed name options for hours on walks around our neighborhood, and we had spoken the name “Adelaide,” an early favorite, out loud hundreds of times. But it felt so different to say it to Adelaide herself. I said it over and over again, getting used to it, making sure it stuck. It felt almost awkward in its intimacy, choosing a word that would be linked to her identity forever. This link is already strong: She says her own name all the time now and responds when we say it. She recognizes it when it’s written down, and she seems to prefer Addie to Adelaide. In turn, Adelaide has given Gen and me new names ourselves: “Daddy Daddy,” she shouts, most enthusiastically when I come home from work. And “Sit on Mommy!” when she wants to play with her coloring books at the table.

In the beginning of the Passover story, Moses is keeping a flock of sheep on Mount Horeb when God appears in a burning bush, calls Moses by name, and tells him God has heard the cries of the enslaved Israelites and has “come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” and will lead them to a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8). Moses, so often more persistent in his conversations with God than I would have the nerve to be, says something like, “But if I go to the people and they ask me for his name, what should I say?”  And then God responds: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” (3:14)

This is a bold question for Moses to ask the King of the Universe, and God surely doesn’t have to respond. As Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini said in a recent lecture on Exodus by way of comparison, Queen Elizabeth, for instance, doesn’t wear a nametag. “Queens just don’t do that,” Cavadini said. “It’s too common, too accessible, too embarrassing to majesty. And yet God, who has all the majesty in the world, […] doesn’t hesitate to bend down and give his name.” God is essentially saying, in Cavadini’s words, “Here’s my business card. Call me.” Names have power.

It is because God wants to have an intimate relationship with the Israelites that God calls Moses by name and offers his own. He desires the closeness of, say, a father and his children. God speaks to Moses and gets involved in the first place because what else can a parent do when his children are crying?

As close as Gen and I are to the daughter we named who renamed us, God wants to be even closer to his children. That is what Passover reminds me of now. Maybe this year, I’ll add a couple lines on the back of Adelaide’s place-card: Beloved daughter of Gen and Mike. Beloved daughter of God.