I sat in my parents' dining room for Passover seder, my feet dangling over the edge of the mauve upholstered chair, and hoped the story of Moses would drown out my growing hunger. The smells of tradition tickled my nose as the salty matzo ball soup simmered on the stove, the pungent horseradish billowed up with each page turned in my Haggadah, and the sweet burgundy grape juice swayed in my cup. Every year of my childhood, my family would gather in this dining room on Passover, our stomachs rumbling louder with each of Moses’ demands to “let my people go” and our focus deteriorating with each prayer. We became silly, frustrating my mother, until she gave up well before the end of the story, and let us eat. We laughed and vowed to eat a snack before seder next year knowing none of us would remember. This was our family tradition.
Moses was the first adoptee I knew besides my sister and myself. This is probably why, of all the stories in the Torah I learned growing up, Moses’ story has stuck with me through agnosticism, atheism, and back again. Like most adoptee stories, Moses’ story is not written by him. He is at the mercy of God’s ghostwriter, obviously not an adoptee, who writes Moses as an object and not a subject. Moses, the object of his mothers’ hope. Moses, the object of the pharaoh’s daughter’s charity. Moses, God’s prophet and pawn. An adoptee in service of others is a story I understood well and listened to carefully.
I am not a biblical scholar and the dozen years I spent in Sunday School were mostly filled with snacks and crafts, but when a story is told over and over it has a way of snaking its way into your own story, hissing its lessons as you grow. My parents always told me the story of my birth mother’s sacrifice. A blanket replaced a woven basket and a police station in Busan, Korea was the backdrop rather than the Nile River, but the sacrifice was the same. Undying love meant saying goodbye. Saving a child meant severing ties. Moses and I owed our birth mothers achievement and perfection.
As Moses, the Jew, became Egyptian, Cynthia, the Korean, became Jewish. I wore this identity like a cloak, shrouding myself in Jewish tradition and identity, layers of Jewish tapestry wrapped around me, so tight I could barely breathe. I stayed suffocating in this adopted identity and listened to Moses try to wrestle free with dire consequences. When Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Jewish slave and lashed out at the Egyptian, the shroud of his own identity fell off, leaving him exposed, and he fled from his adoptive family into the desert. The deep shame and self-hatred that drove Moses away from his adoptive family, drove me to burrow down deeper into the perfect adoptee role. “Stay small. Stay safe, Moses,” I would whisper.
After connecting with his Jewish roots and receiving God’s message to lead the Jewish people, Moses does what many adoptees ultimately decide to do. They reconcile their past with their present. Moses returns to Egypt, stands before his family, the eyes that used to see family now staring back at a stranger, and asks for freedom for him and his people. And with each, “No,” emphatically stated by the Pharaoh as the plagues rain down on him, Moses is rejected over and over, his birthright a blight on his adoptive family. Amidst the cruel chaos, the message I heard hammering in my ears from the people and community I loved the most was that if an adoptee stands up or speaks out, harm will befall everyone. Perhaps this is why, even now, while I write and share my story as a Korean American adoptee with strangers, I still hide it from my family.
Moses taught me one more lesson long after the Red Sea, the desert march, and Mount Sinai. The very end of his life became the subject of my Bat Mitzvah torah portion. Moses gave his last speech to the Israelites as they prepared to cross the Jordan into the promised land, praising God and the Jewish people, and after a lifetime of trauma and hardship, he was about to walk with the family of his birth into their home. However, after the speech, God told Moses he would not be allowed to enter after all because he questioned God during the journey. Moses, the adoptee, rejected again. On the day I became a Jewish adult, I exulted a God who left an adoptee abandoned, excluded, and alone, a perpetual outsider, torn away from his Egyptian family and kept from his Jewish one, all because he showed doubt. If that can happen to Moses, the greatest prophet in Jewish history, then what hope was there for me?
I stopped attending my family seders many years ago, but now as a mother of three, I feel a call to start our own tradition of a seder, trying to pass along the good memories of my childhood without the bad. Certainly, matzo ball soup will be bubbling away on the stove and saccharine grape juice will be sloshing in goblets, but with three adoptees around the table, we will tell a different story of Moses. We will talk about Moses’s relinquishment, the feelings he had growing up in an Egyptian family as a Jewish person, why he fled, and what brought him back. We will talk about how it is okay to have doubt in your faith and that being true to yourself will lead you to a promised land that you have the keys to and can never be kept from. And, when we inevitably all give in to our hunger before the end of the story, we will laugh and joke about having a snack next year before we start. And we most definitely will not remember. It’s tradition.