“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat! All who need, come and participate in Passover! This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves – next year, may we be free people.” – haggadah
So begins the Seder, sung to captivating tunes in many traditions, inspiring and glossing on the hour’s themes and motifs. There are, however, a number of questions that become evident upon a close examination of the text.
Firstly, there is a Jewish law requirement that all who are going to join with other families in eating the Paschal lamb (consumed only in biblical and Temple times) need to register as such in advance. True, we no longer eat a sacrificial lamb as the centerpiece of the Seder. Still, the declaration that we make invites people to come and “yifsach,” most probably meaning eat the Passover meal according to the many accompanying laws and rituals. Is this invitation not contrary to Jewish law?
Next, there are questions that are particularly modern questions that arise especially in our current social conditions. How can we sincerely declare, “[a]ll who are hungry, come and eat!” when we are seated comfortably around our tables with invited guests already in attendance? No one who is needy could possibly hear. Further, the time is too late for anyone in need. Someone in need of a Seder would have been filled with anxiety already and wondering for weeks in advance how they will be able to celebrate Passover this year.
Standing now at the beginning of Nissan, the month of spring (at least in years past) and the month of redemption, it is important to consider the answers to these questions and their implications somewhat in advance of our actual sedarim. Perhaps the declarations were not really intended for the Seder at all. All questions suddenly fall away merely by positing that this is supposed to be something we do during the weeks leading up to the Seder. Then there would have been time to register (in biblical times) just as there is now time to invite those in need.
I once asked Rabbi Aaron Kahn, one of my teachers at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, these very questions and suggested to him a variety of possible answers to the textual and pragmatic issues. He replied that the answers were plausible but politely noted that they seemed too complex and failed to address the central issue of why this text was actually included in the haggadah text that we’ve recited for almost two thousand years. Why, then, I asked, do we include this text in the haggadah? His reply was instructive.
Obviously, the time to think of those who will struggle to celebrate the holiday of Passover is well in advance, whether there is a legal requirement of an advanced RSVP or not. Rather, the statement is not intended for the substance of the matter asserted, to borrow a legal term, but for two other reasons. First, the Jewish notion of freedom is not the liberal democratic notion that is so imbedded in our collective conscience and vocabulary. We were redeemed as a people to serve God as a chosen people; we were redeemed as a people to actively embrace the dignity and hidden enigma of existence in the presence of the Creator. One reflection of this is that we ought to be free from the bondages of Egyptian slavery, marked by avodat parech, a particularly cruel kind of useless habitual labor. This is reflected in our observances of the Sabbath and the concomitant mandate that servants rest on the Sabbath as well. This is also reflected in the Torah’s repetitive admonitions and charges to remember the poor, oppressed and those in any kind of need. In this way, as we hold up the matzah at this part of the Seder, we are declaring that freedom (represented by the matzah which did not have time to rise) means remembering the “slaves” and those in need. This value is also represented by the matzah, which our sages referred to as lechem oni, the bread of poverty. The higher order purpose of freedom is to recognize the human dignity which is its cause and to help others who share equally in its divine glory.
Secondly, the statement serves as a challenging litmus test as we mark Passover. When we invite those who need to come and join us at the Seder, is the statement superficial and late?
Who’s sitting at our tables? How do we order our lives on other nights? Have we earned redemption?
Rabbi Barry Dolinger (email@example.com) serves the congregation of Beth Sholom in Providence.