This Passover I‘m thinking about my grandmother.
‘Kol dichfin yeitei v’yeichol ‘- Let all who are hungry, come and eat”. My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was always touched by this line in the Passover Haggadah. My grandmother survived the extermination camps by being one of the ‘lucky’ people who worked in the kitchens. One day when I was young she quietly told me that during the war she and others would secretly wrap potato peelings around her waist, and give them to other starving inmates back at the barracks. The punishment for such an act, if caught, was death. This was an act of extreme courage and self-sacrifice.
My grandmother’s courage is echoed in the Jewish tradition. The Bible implores us to look after the vulnerable in society with a universal imperative to care for the poor and hungry. This commandment to care is implicitly tied with our national identity. Being part of the Jewish people is a function of expressing care for the most vulnerable in society.
“For the Lord your God … defends the cause of the …the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are strangers, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt.”(Leviticus 19:10)
The great national mission that emerges from the Exodus is about caring for the vulnerable. This is our national mandate. It finds expression in many commandment: We are commanded to give charity (Leviticus 27:30), to leave the corner of our fields to the poor (Leviticus 23:22), to feed and clothe the poor (Deuteronomy 10:18), to cancel the debts of the poor (Deuteronomy 15:9), to provide fair wages to the poor (Deuteronomy 24:14), to ensure justice to the vulnerable (Exodus 23:6) and more.
Indeed, at the Seder, this is best symbolized by the central icons of the meal: we eat matzah, to physically experience the ‘bread of affliction’.
These ideas, written thousands of years ago, are as relevant now as they were then. However, we have evolved in that time and are no longer a budding nation. Just as the world has evolved, so have we. And the time has come for us to take a fresh look at these commandments to adopt the caring mindset to a global setting. After a few millennia, it’s time to think bigger.
There are models for addressing these issues. The United Nations and World Bank, for example, have been working on a social justice structure. Once called Millennium Development Goals and now called Sustainable Development Goals, many world countries are working on eradicating poverty, slavery and hunger, provide health care for all, providing universal education, gender equality, and access to clean water.
As Jews, we should find these models exciting. After all, we have been encouraged for 3000 years to look for ways to address these issues of poverty and hunger. If, when the Torah was given, the best solutions available were leaving a corner of a field or inviting a poor person for a meal, today the world gives us so many bigger and better ways to really do our work in a way that has broader, more powerful impact.
It’s time for the Jewish people to think bigger, take more seriously what we say in the Hagaddah. But this requires something else: It requires courage.
My grandmother’s decision to care for other starving inmates and not just worry about her own survival required life-risking courage. Most of us are lucky not to be in life-risking circumstances today. But it still takes courage to be willing to get out of our comfort zone and dedicate ourselves to the well-being of others.
I would like to see the Jewish people take the social directives we were given at the start of our Passover redemption over 3400 years ago and evolve them into global, broad-minded, courageous, strategic development goals. Let us envision and actualize a world where people are not suffering from preventable, treatable problems. We don’t even have to risk our lives to feed the hungry, the way my grandmother did. All we have to do is to commit ourselves to developing and implementing a Jewish agenda based on our initial mandate of addressing poverty. Let us work on creating a world that truly embodies ‘Kol dichfin yeite v’ yeichol , where every day, everyone, everywhere has food to eat.